A Day in the Life of Dr. Alice Blue-Mclendon
Director of the Winnie Carter Wildlife Center and clinical
assistant professor of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology
(VTPP), Dr. Alice
Blue-McLendon has been at the Texas A&M University College
of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) for almost
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
"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
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
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
For her, humor is as much a personality trait as it is a
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
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
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
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
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
Today, a group of students will help her deantler a white-tailed
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
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
While watchful that the students perform the steps correctly,
she maintains a laid-back atmosphere, encouraging them to try new
The students respond well to her instructions, working
cooperatively, never hesitating to ask for assistance or clarify
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
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
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
But at the heart of this dynamic career have always been her
"What I like most about working here is that I get to work with
really smart, ambitious students and teach them," she says
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."