Small Screens And Big Dreams

Since graduating in 2013, Dr. Lauren Thielen has found herself—and her work with exotic animals—as the centerpiece of Nat Geo WILD’s “Dr. T., Lone Star Vet.”

Story by Margaret Preigh

Dr. Thielen examines a parrot while a veterinary technician assists and a veterinary student watches
From left: Veterinary student Rachel Ellerd, Veterinary Technician Tonya Green, and Dr. Lauren Thielen work on Sammie the Timneh African grey parrot. (Photo by Nick Willson, National Geographic)

Dr. Lauren Thielen, a 2013 graduate of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), is no stranger to a camera.

After receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, Thielen pursued an internship at the Broward Avian and Exotics Animal Hospital in Florida under Dr. Susan Kelleher. One month after beginning her position, Thielen learned that National Geographic would be producing a television show about the practice.

“I thought it was cool,” Thielen said. “I’m the type who likes these things. I thought it would be great to educate through an outlet so lovely as National Geographic.”

“Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER” premiered in 2014 and is currently in its eighth season. The show follows the happenings of the animal hospital as Dr. Kelleher and her team treat everything from ferrets to foxes. Thielen appeared on the show from its beginning in 2014 until she left the practice in 2018.

Her claim to fame didn’t end there, though; she now headlines her own National Geographic program, “Dr. T, Lone Star Vet,” which premiered in October.

“Nobody thinks they’re going to be on TV. I went to school to be a doctor,” Thielen said. “I don’t think I ever expected something like this to happen, but I’m really glad it did.”

An Early Interest

Although appearing on television was an unexpected twist in her career, Thielen has always held a passion for exotic animals. Raised in Fort Worth, she recalls sharing a love of animals with her father; she was never far from an animal friend in her home growing up.

“I’ve had turtles, iguanas, parrots, different types of lizards, hamsters, gerbils, and rabbits. I’ve always had rabbits,” she said, adding that in veterinary school, she had a Dutch rabbit named Penelope. “I’ve had a very big variety of different animals over the years.”

When she began thinking about working with animals, she initially wanted to be an exotic veterinarian at a zoo, but at the CVM, she was exposed to the option of becoming an exotic animal pet veterinarian. She was especially drawn to the hands-on nature of working with pets, saying that bunnies were much cuddlier than zoo animals like tigers.

Dr. Thielen holds a hedgehog up to her face to say hello
Dr. Lauren Thielen greets Nala the hedgehog. (Photo by Kenyon Henderson, National Geographic)

“I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian since I knew what a veterinarian was. I’ve really always just loved animals, and I’ve always loved exotic animals,” she said.

Thielen’s early exposure to and interest in a range of animals has benefited her career. She has gone on to help a diverse cast of animals, working with everything from emus and capybaras to turkeys and lizards.

At this point, there is little that could shock her.

“One guy wanted to bring me this red Indian flying tree squirrel that was the size of a cat. It was awesome,” she said. “I see crazy things all the time. On Tuesday, we saw a lynx.”

Among her favorite cases was a pot-bellied pig Thielen treated for water intoxication. The pig came into the clinic unable to move with its pupils fixed and dilated, which means its brain wasn’t functioning properly.

“I contacted like five different veterinarians and everyone told me it was completely hopeless and that the patient’s never going to be normal again,” she said.

Thielen didn’t give up, describing her approach to that case as meticulous. In the end, her effort paid off.

“The pig ended up great and is still doing well to this day,” she said. “I was a brand new veterinarian, and I still found confidence and was able to gather the right knowledge to be able to save this patient against all odds.”

A New Chapter

In 2018, Thielen made the decision to move home to Texas and pursue an opportunity with her former mentor Dr. Sharman Hoppes, a professor emeritus at the CVM.

The two had first connected over their mutual love of exotic animals when Thielen was a student assigned to the zoological medicine ward. Thielen eventually joined a group of students led by Hoppes that traveled to Tambopata, Peru, to work with macaws. Thielen said this experience is when she became more involved with Hoppes and her husband, Dr. Bruce Nixon DVM ’85.

Dr. Thielen examines a hedgehog while staff assist
Dr. Lauren Thielen and vet staff with Nala the hedgehog. (Photo by Kenyon Henderson, National Geographic)

The two reconnected by chance when they ended up on the same flight to an exotic animal conference.

As Hoppes discussed the opening of her and her husband’s new practice, Thielen was particularly intrigued by their concept of providing specialized care to exotic animals within a complex that also offered specialized care in surgery, internal medicine, cardiology, dermatology, ophthalmology, critical care, and dentistry services. Thielen also noted that the clinic would be located near her childhood home.

Thielen now is copartner at Texas Avian & Exotic Hospital, which recently added another Aggie, Dr. Jordan Gentry, who completed his residency in zoological medicine at the CVM.

Thielen says she is proud to be an Aggie.

“I think my favorite part of being an Aggie is just the comradery that everyone has and the support of everybody for one another,” she said.

Hoppes is glad to work with her former student and mentee as a colleague.

“Lauren is funny, smart, and passionate. She is confident in her knowledge base and her skills,” Hoppes said. “And she is a really good person. She truly loves people and their animals and it shows.”

Thielen also brought with her to Texas Avian & Exotic Hospital her TV legacy; “Dr. T, Lone Star Vet,” filmed at this hospital, follows Thielen as she provides veterinary care to exotic animals.

“We were nervously excited about this show being filmed at our clinic,” Hoppes said. “We thought it was a great way to educate people, but we were nervous about cameras being there all the time.”

Thielen is glad to get back on camera. She said that the decision to resume her television career was easy.

“My producer and I always had a really good time filming the other show together, so we thought, ‘why not continue the fun?’” she said. “I’ve been on television literally since I graduated veterinary school, so to me, this is just normal.”

Dr. Thielen attaches screws to a turtle's shells while a veterinary technician and veterinary student assist
From left: Daniel Olson ’20, Dr. Lauren Thielen, and Vet Tech Tonya Green reattach Sam the red-eared slider’s fractured shell with screws. (Photo by Pablo Calzada, National Geographic)

Thielen’s comfort in front of the camera is clear. In the first episode of her show, she fearlessly corners a turkey that has been attacking its male owner. Thielen handles the situation with a mix of humor and educational flair, cracking a joke about the turkey’s sassy strut before diagnosing the animal with a testosterone imbalance.

A Veterinarian On A Mission

Thielen hopes that this program, the first season of which aired for eight weeks on Nat Geo WILD (and is now available on Disney+), provides a platform from which she and other veterinarians can educate the public on proper animal and veterinary care.

“One thing I want to accomplish with this show is to show people how veterinary medicine is supposed to be practiced,” she said. “Being able to show veterinary collaboration at its finest is important. I want to show people that your birds can go to cardiologists, too.”

Thielen hopes that by providing exposure to these options, owners might seek out more comprehensive care.

“We can fix a fracture in a parakeet’s leg. We can remove a tumor on a rabbit,” Thielen said. “By educating pet owners on not only how to take care of an animal, but also that there is real medicine for their pets, people will understand the possibility in what we do.”

Thielen said another benefit of her program has been the influence she has over inspiring the next generation of exotic animal veterinarians.

“Little girls and even students in veterinary school write me and visit the clinic. They’re like, ‘I want to be an exotic vet one day,’” she said. “I didn’t even know this job existed until I was already in veterinary school. For these people to already know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, I just think that’s so cool.”

A turtle with screws holding its broken shell together
Sam the red-eared slider’s fractured shell is reattached with screws. (Photo by Pablo Calzada, National Geographic)

Inspiring more students to pursue exotic veterinary medicine is important, Thielen notes, since not all owners have easy access to veterinarians properly trained to care for their exotic pets.

“Patients do travel to see us. There are some veterinarians who see exotics in the area, but we’re the only exotics-exclusive facility in all of Dallas-Fort Worth,” she said. “I do think that there are definitely other veterinarians who will see some exotics, but we’re kind of the only practice that’s going to see the lynx or the monkey.”

What Lies Ahead

In general, Thielen is enthusiastic about most animals that the average person would shy away from. She is particularly drawn to birds, speaking about the beaked animals as lovingly as most people would talk about puppies.

“Birds are the cuddliest,” she said. “They’re expressive. When you walk in a room, they get excited and they dance and they fly to you.

“I also get attached to lizards,” she said. “I would argue they’re all extremely personable, and most of them want to be held and want to be interacted with.”

This mindset suits Thielen well as an exotic animal veterinarian, and leaves a lot of doors open for her future work. In addition to filming “Dr. T, Lone Star Vet” and completing her regular clinic duties, Thielen recently became a board certified avian specialist.

When reflecting on the animals she has provided care for, Thielen does not recall ever feeling fearful of a patient.

“I have a healthy respect for all animals,” she said. “As far as a true phobia, I don’t have anything like that.”

Indeed, Thielen is ready for any patient the future brings through her clinic’s doors. She looks forward to continuing to provide comprehensive care to her patients and educating her audience through “Dr. T, Lone Star Vet.” She is optimistic that she can handle whatever is in store.

“I see pretty much everything now,” she said. “There’s a lot I haven’t seen, but I think I’m ready for almost anything.”

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Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of CVM Today.

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Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216