Director of the Winnie Carter Wildlife Center and clinical associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology (VTPP), Dr. Alice Blue-McLendon has been at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS) for almost 25 years.
Known for her expertise in wildlife medicine, her effectiveness as a teacher and her passion for community service, Dr. Blue (as her students call her) is a lively source of inspiration for those working with her.
This account of a day in her life gives a glimpse of her work.
“Using at least one-third of the paper, draw the eyeball and label its parts,” Dr. Blue says.
A nervous buzz sweeps through the classroom. It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). Students in the undergraduate “Physiology of Animals” course have just been served a pop quiz.
As the students draw their diagrams, Dr. Blue walks through the classroom, keeping up a lively patter: “Remember, eyelashes don’t count, and I don’t want an eye the size of a quarter.”
It’s easy to see why she is known for her sense of humor.
Students collect in groups after the quiz to review their work. Dr. Blue offers praise for the best diagrams, holding them up for the class to see. Delighted, she says, “Maybe we should have a contest!”
For those caught unawares by the quiz, she asks gently, “So what can you do to do better?” “Study regularly,” the students chime. Satisfied that the class is now alert, she plunges into her lecture.
The topic for today: “The ear organ: A sense organ specialized for two distinct functions-hearing and equilibrium.”
Dr. Blue shows diagrams of cross sections of the ear, discussing the structure and function of each part of the outer, middle and inner ear: for example, the pinna, tympanic membrane and cochlea. But the lecture is never a monologue: questions and answers fly back and forth.
“Which animals don’t have a pinna [the outer part of the ear]?” (Answer: Birds, reptiles, fish and marine mammals.)
She hints at the answer, “Have you ever seen ears on a sperm whale?”
For her, humor is as much a personality trait as it is a teaching tool.
An explanation of the functions of the parts of the ear leads to a discussion about hearing loss. Students chip in with their grisly experiences. A straw that pierced an eardrum. A wasp that flew into an ear.
Seizing a teaching opportunity, Dr. Blue offers a tip on how to deal with bugs in ears: “Put alcohol in your ear if you think a bug has crawled into it.”
The lecture continues in this vein, humor and anecdotes pacing the content. It includes the function of the pinna (“The purpose of the pinna is to focus sound waves onto the ear canal. It is not for decoration.”), how the structure of the ear canal in dogs-L-shaped-differs from that in humans-straight (“That’s why vets lift up a dogs ears to look into the ear canal.”) and the structure and function of the cochlea (“It has a coiled snail-shell-like structure. It serves as the body’s microphone.”).
After an hour and 20 minutes, the lecture draws to a close. Dr. Blue underlines a common theme in the material presented thus far: “All the anatomical structures of the [outer and middle] ear function to get sound waves into the inner ear.” Then, just as the class started, she ends with a pop question, discussing the answer and then dismissing the class.
One of her slides from the lecture-a photograph of an antlered deer framed against a blue sky-points to her next task for the day: the deantlering of a white-tailed buck at the Winnie Carter Wildlife Center.
A path curves toward a blue-and-white house. Outside, in fenced enclosures, deer sit on sunlight-quilted grass, a peacock spreads its feathers and an ostrich peers curiously at visitors.
A nameplate on the house explains the setting: “Winnie Carter Wildlife Center.”
Situated about a mile away from the CVM building complex and spread over 16 acres, the center functions as a teaching and research facility. It lets students experience working with wild animals without leaving the campus.
This “hands-on experience” is offered through a “directed studies” course (VTPP 485) at the center. One of the largest “485 courses” on campus (about 20 students register per semester), it teaches how to feed animals (for example, how to bottle-feed baby deer) and how to interpret animal behavior (for example, how animals react to different situations).
Dr. Blue also offers practical instruction by scheduling surgeries at the center such that students can participate in them.
Today, a group of students will help her deantler a white-tailed deer.
It is now half-past eleven in the morning. Dressed in black scrubs, her pink earrings matching the pink scrawl of her name on her scrub top, Dr. Blue stands with the students on the “catwalk” (a platform overlooking a ceiling-less animal pen).
Inside the pen is “Heath,” a 7-year-old white-tailed buck. Brown, forked antlers rise majestically from his head.
Dr. Blue explains that Heath is in “hard antler,” which means that the antlers have stopped growing (they are no longer covered with skin or supplied by blood vessels and nerves) and are completely calcified. Unfortunately, in captivity, the antlers may pose a safety issue and Heath will be deantlered to prevent him from injuring other deer (for example, during fights) and deer handlers.
Her hip-length jet-black plait of hair tossed over her back, Dr. Blue crouches down and aims her blowgun at Heath to perform the first step of the procedure-anesthesia. A pink dart lodges itself in Heath’s left rump.
She waits for the anesthesia to take effect and then proceeds methodically to prepare Heath for the surgery. Forever in “teaching mode,” she involves the students in each step of the procedure.
For example, she instructs them on how to position Heath comfortably on a mat, determine his respiratory rate and feel his abdomen to check for signs of discomfort.
But it is not a staccato burst of instructions-as always, she makes room for fascination and wonder.
Running her fingers through Heath’s thick coat of brown hair, she exclaims at the closely packed hairs, “Isn’t he a beautiful animal!”
While watchful that the students perform the steps correctly, she maintains a laid-back atmosphere, encouraging them to try new skills.
The students respond well to her instructions, working cooperatively, never hesitating to ask for assistance or clarify doubts.
The smell of bone fills the air as a student saws through the base of an antler with a gigli wire. One by one, the antlers come off, leaving behind bony stubs.
Heath will regrow his antlers from these stubs, and in another year, he will be ready for another deantlering.
It is now almost 1:30 p.m. Dr. Blue requests a student to stay behind to monitor Heath’s progress for the next couple of hours. She then heads to the “examination room” along with her technician to make sure all the materials for the surgery are put away and the details of the procedure are recorded.
Dr. Blue sits at a round table in the blue-and-white cottage at the center. It is 2:00 p.m. and she is keeping her last appointment for the day: a meeting with me to talk about her work.
She interrupts the conversation to play a game.
“Look at my gorilla handprint,” she says. “Isn’t it neat? It’s from a book with pictures of actual sizes of animals. Come on. Try yours.”
She watches as I place my hand over the print, matching finger-to-finger and palm-to-palm. “Isn’t the [gorilla’s] hand giant!” she exclaims with almost childlike enthusiasm.
The room reverberates with this fascination for wild animals-a bowl of painted ostrich eggs forms a centerpiece, clusters of white-tailed deer antler perch on cabinets and peacock feathers spray from vases.
It’s a love affair that began early in life. “I’ve wanted to be a vet probably from the time I was 12,” Dr. Blue says.
She followed through with this childhood dream, earning a doctorate in veterinary medicine from CVM and doing a residency in zoological and wildlife medicine there. She began working at the center in the late 1980s while completing her veterinary residency.
She never looked back.
Over the years, she has been involved in varied work: field trips to zoos (for example, administering anesthesia to a walrus who “was having a root canal and his tusks removed” at Sea World, San Antonio, Texas); research on the reproduction, diseases and diet of ratites (large flightless birds such as emus and ostriches); and cloning projects, for example, participating in the care of “Dewey,” the first cloned white-tailed deer in the world.
But at the heart of this dynamic career have always been her students.
“What I like most about working here is that I get to work with really smart, ambitious students and teach them,” she says proudly.
When pressed about what she would have changed about her life, she laughs and says, “I would’ve gotten to Africa sooner and darted elephants from helicopters!”
On a more serious note, she adds, “I’d like to have some elephants at the center. They are my favorite animal. But they are too expensive. I hope that I can go to Africa and participate in a research project on them.”