Heeding the Call of the Wildlife

World Wildlife Day, observed annually on March 3, underscores the critical role of wildlife veterinarians in global conservation efforts as professionals like Maddie Chilcote ’17 work to ensure the health and survival of wild species, supporting both biodiversity and ecosystem preservation.

Many people think of household pets like cats and dogs when they think of veterinary medicine, yet it’s a whole other animal for Kalamazoo College alumna Maddie Chilcote ’17.

Chilcote is a wildlife and conservation medicine intern at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW), a nonprofit teaching hospital and visitor education center in Sanibel, Florida, dedicated to saving wildlife through veterinary care, research, education and conservation medicine.

Wildlife and conservation medicine intern Maddie Chilcote at a lake
Kalamazoo College alumna Maddie Chilcote ’17 is a wildlife and conservation medicine intern at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) cares for more than 6,000 sick, injured and orphaned wildlife patients from more than 200 species a year.
Wildlife doctor Maddie Chilcote performing surgery
Chilcote performs surgery to remove dead tissue on a mottled duck.
Wildlife doctor's photo shows healing on a treated mottled duck
The mottled duck Chilcote treated at CROW began growing new feathers and healthy tissue three weeks after surgery.

Each year, CROW cares for more than 6,000 sick, injured and orphaned wildlife patients from more than 200 species—varying from tortoises to bald eagles—while offering educational fellowships and externship programs for undergraduate students and visiting veterinary students, and internship programs for veterinarian graduates like Chilcote, a Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine graduate. In addition to clinical duties, CROW interns work closely with staff from all departments in the hospital to gain a better understanding of the rehabilitation process, participate in research and conservation projects, and help teach students, staff and volunteers.

“Anthropogenic threats are the primary reason patients present to the hospital—whether they have been hit by a car, stuck in a glue trap, suffering from toxins such as rodenticides or harmful algal blooms, or reaping the consequences of habitat destruction.” Chilcote said. “If students want to be a part of the organizations that are the One Health and climate change first responders, I would encourage them to get involved in wildlife rehabilitation and medicine.”

Chilcote began to realize her potential career path in fourth grade in her hometown of Rochester Hills, Michigan, when she gave a speech in school about her dream of becoming a veterinarian.

“I don’t know what inspired me at that age, probably just love for my pet cat, hearing about the conservation work my uncle was involved in, seeing animals on TV and going to the zoo,” she said.

That dream shifted slightly when she job shadowed in high school and the appeal of clinical care lost some of its luster. Chilcote said she considered pursuing research over clinical work when she began taking classes such as animal behavior, animal development, vertebrate biology and symbiosis from influential faculty members such as Biology Lab Director Anne Engh and Associate Professor of Biology Amanda Wollenberg at K, where she also minored in German and played women’s soccer.

Her Senior Integrated Project (SIP) at Binder Park Zoo focused on the stereotypic pacing behaviors of three American black bear siblings while introducing food-based and environmental enrichment, sealing her career interest in wildlife. Soon after, she found an internship at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, Maine, where she began embracing the idea of attending Michigan State to study veterinary medicine.

At Michigan State, Chilcote used elective opportunities to spend time at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network in California, the Wildlife Center of Virginia, the California Wildlife Center, The Georgia Aquarium, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife before fulfilling an internship—similar to a residency for students of human medicine—at VCA South Shore Animal Hospital near Boston.

The mottled duck was brought back to health after surgery.
The mottled duck patient was released at Gator Lake at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers, Florida.

At VCA, Chilcote helped pets on an emergency room floor while also rotating through specialties such as neurology, dermatology, internal medicine and surgery. But because she still hoped for experience in wildlife medicine, she re-entered the internship match program and ended up at CROW, where one of her most satisfying experiences involved saving a mottled duck over one Thanksgiving weekend.

“A lot of my colleagues were out of town visiting family and this patient presented with a scabbed and necrotic wound that extended the length of its neck and further down its right side,” Chilcote said. “Although this is not a wound we regularly see, and it may look like an immediate euthanasia given the extent of the wound, I felt inspired to try to treat this patient. After a couple of days of supportive care that included intravenous fluids, antibiotics, pain medications, and an appropriate refeeding plan, this patient was ready for an anesthetized procedure for debridement and wound care.”

After a successful surgery, daily bandage changes, wound dressings and nurturing healthy tissue at CROW, a partnering facility finished the duck’s rehabilitation with outdoor care and conditioning.

“They collaborated with us again a couple weeks later and we released him together,” Chilcote said. “It was remarkable. He flew just above the water along the length of a small lake at a nature preserve. It was a good full-circle moment to see what saying yes and trying something new can lead to. Knowing that I had primary responsibility of that case and could see it all the way through was a big milestone for me.”

With her CROW internship winding down, Chilcote is hoping to intern again to further her veterinary skills—perhaps in Nebraska, California or Minnesota—when Match Day comes around again next week. She has applied to sites in each of those states, eyeing additional internship opportunities, perhaps at a wildlife center near you.

“I’m especially looking to further my orthopedic experience,” Chilcote said. “We’ve pinned a handful of fractures in birds this year, but our caseload and therefore surgical case load has been down since Hurricane Ian. I want to feel a little bit further along in those skills before trying to find a staff position where I may be the only veterinarian there and have to make decisions and do procedures like that primarily on my own.Because Michigan is so near and dear to me, my 20-, 30- or 40-year plan is to eventually get back to Michigan, partner with local businesses, and design and build a wildlife teaching hospital of my own.”