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A day in the life: Antonia Gardner

Wildlife veterinarian bids farewell to the old year at the South Florida Wildlife Center

From Web Exclusives

6 a.m. Up and out of bed—checking emails, drinking coffee and folding laundry. The next three and a half hours will be a flurry of playing with my toddler, cleaning, making breakfast and caring for my own animals, Nugget and Wennie.9:30 a.m. I’m driving to work on the Florida Turnpike with a line of cars in front of me. The population of South Florida is massive, and human communities abut against the Everglades. Because of this, wildlife has many chances to have negative encounters with cars, pets and buildings, which is what brings many of them to South Florida Wildlife Center.10 a.m. The smell of tar is still hanging in the air when I arrive at the center. Although this last week was filled with the pounding of workers overhead, we’re all grateful to the donors who made it possible for us to replace the aging, leaky roof on our main building.10:15 a.m. With our rescue and release coordinator Julie D’Errico, I greet our first patient of the morning: an angry peregrine falcon who was found hanging from a tree last night. The bird turned out to be owned by a local falconer, and his jesses (thin straps around the ankles) were what had entangled him. We were able to promptly return him to his grateful owner. 11 a.m. I examine one of our long-term patients. This burrowing owl has been here for over a month, being treated for a resistant infection on his face and neck. He has finally stopped trying to scratch himself, thanks in part to a bacterial culture and sensitivity test, which helped us get him on the correct antibiotic.11:15 a.m. Another doctor check on a long-term patient—this time a turkey vulture with a broken leg. With help from animal caregiver Kristen Thoman, I look at his pin and surgery site to make sure everything is in place. This winter we have seen more young vultures than usual, most of them suffering from bone fractures or just overall weakness.11:20 a.m. A tiny patient comes in for triage, very distressed, unable to fly or stand. We treat him quickly with fluids and pain medications for suspected head trauma, then put him in a quiet place to recover.11:25 a.m. Once he’s settled, we consult The Sibley Guide to Birds to confirm his exact species—an Eastern wood-pewee! The winter migration brings us many unusual species that keep us running to the books.11:30 a.m. Another patient check—this time on a squirrel who injured his leg yesterday. He seems content and looks like he’s on the mend.11:45 a.m. Satisfied patient? This Muscovy duck had a deep wound on one leg that required surgical and topical treatment. She is finally healed and ready to go! Muscovies aren’t native to our area, but the person who found her is willing to take her back and provide long-term care.11:50 a.m. Animal caregiver Shelly Starr holds another patient—a sweet-natured domesticated goose who will also be returned to her finder once recovered. She has a bruised and swollen foot, but X-rays confirmed that there was no bone infection, which is great news for her!12 p.m. Data entry is a necessary evil of my job. We enter every patient record and every medical note into our database. Sitting at a computer sometimes takes up a significant part of my day.12:15 p.m. Here is my doctor check sheet—almost done! It’s a list of animals who I need to check during my shift to make sure they’re progressing as expected or to determine if they need a change in their treatment plan. The list often includes animals who need procedures and diagnostics too. Since today is a holiday, it focuses on patients needing immediate attention, but on a busy day it can be over two pages long.12:30 p.m. A critically injured gray squirrel comes in as a triage patient. I assess him quickly and then give him a sedative to decrease his stress and make handling easier. After his X-rays, we will formulate a treatment plan. His presumptive diagnosis is severe head trauma.1 p.m. Volunteer Jack Gottlieb starts to sweep and mop the clinic. We don’t want to start the new year with a dirty hospital!1:15 p.m. I look in on a reptile patient. This peninsula cooter is being treated with VAC [vacuum-assisted closure], which involves applying suction to stimulate healing of a shell fracture. He is also on pain medications, fluids and antibiotics.1:30 p.m. Lunch time means more computer work, such as approving payroll, working on my weekly report and answering emails. My nanday conure, Sprockette, keeps me company. Although native to South America, these birds have wild breeding colonies in South Florida. I hand-raised Sprockette after she was found as a baby and brought to the center.2:30 p.m. We intake a royal tern who was found at a local pier. A screening X-ray, done on all seabirds, shows he is free from swallowed fishhooks, a very common problem in gulls and terns.2:35 p.m. He is thin and weak; we will give him fluid therapy and check a fecal sample for parasites.3 p.m. Julie and I do laser therapy on a long-term patient, an anhinga with an injured wing. We suspect chronic nerve injury has left his left wing with poor function and are hoping our therapy can help him heal.3:15 p.m. Julie writes information on our “day sheet.” This is how we initially keep track of incoming patients, but before the end of the day, all this information will be entered into our database, and all patients will get “cage cards,” which include information such as species, health concerns and required medications and treatments.3:30 p.m. We take X-rays of a Muscovy duck who isn’t standing. We will treat him with fluids and anti-inflammatory medicines since we found no injuries on exam.4:15 p.m. The evening closing process is underway. Julie is cleaning, Sandy is updating the treatment sheet so that patients get the correct medications tomorrow, and I’m cleaning carriers outside near our Waterfowl Habitat, which was critically damaged by Hurricane Irma in September. Several habitats still remain badly damaged; it looks like their recovery will have to wait until next year!4:30 p.m. I check a fecal sample for parasites. Even though parasites often share the internal environment of their wild hosts without causing illness, animals that are weak, injured, starved, under stress, or chilled can lose the ability to keep their load of parasites at bay. Therefore, looking at “poop” to identify overwhelming growth of worms and other invaders is a daily part of life here at the SFWC.4:40 p.m. We take in another weak royal tern, brought in by a dedicated volunteer who monitors the local piers for injured seabirds. This tern has an injured foot and will get X-rays tomorrow.5:20 p.m. All patients are treated and fed, the clinic is cleaned and stocked, and we are out the door. After a quick stop at the grocery store, I will be home with my family.6:15 p.m. Home at last, I’m greeted by my son, Cayeden, and dogs. My plans for New Year’s Eve include a trip to a local light display and some hot chocolate with my husband and son, as well as Xanax for my nervous Jack Russell terrier once the fireworks start.   After everyone is in bed, I will have a little time to reflect on the year’s highs and lows, both personal and professional. For me, it is mostly highs—I am lucky to have a wonderful family and the job of my dreams.12 a.m. Time to ring in the new year with optimism and a glass of Prosecco. Happy New Year!

South Florida Wildlife Center (SFWC) in Fort Lauderdale may not rank as a New Year’s Eve hotspot, but for medical director and veterinarian Antonia Gardner, it’s a fitting place to pay tribute to “auld acquaintance” and to welcome new faces. The center, an HSUS affiliate, is open 365 days a year and takes in more than 12,000 animals annually. For SFWC’s dedicated staff and volunteers, this means a constant cycle of caring for the sick, injured or orphaned while saying farewell to the healthy and healed before they’re returned to their wild habitats.

On the last day of 2017, Gardner and her team split their time between triaging new patients and providing rehabilitative care for current residents. A peregrine falcon, burrowing owl, turkey vulture, Eastern wood-pewee, gray squirrel and peninsula cooter were among the dozens of animals they helped survive to a new year.

It’s “the job of my dreams,” says Gardner, who has worked at the center for 12 years. Click through the gallery above for a behind-the-scenes look at the center’s work and a day in the life of a wildlife veterinarian.

Read all of our "a day in the life" features here. Email bwynn@humanesociety.org to submit your own "a day in the life" idea.

About the Author

As senior editor of the award-winning Animal Sheltering magazine, Julie Falconer writes and edits articles for the sheltering, rescue and animal control fields. Before joining the staff of The Humane Society of the United States, Julie was a longtime volunteer with rescue and animal advocacy organizations in Central Virginia. She spends much of her free time assisting with trap-neuter-return programs for community cats.