Growing up veterinarian is usually a popular career ambition but you actually followed through. What motivated you to stick with it?
I don’t know exactly what made me stick with it except that everything I did in that field was exciting. I kept following what was fun and exciting and interesting and it led me here. I was one of those kids that loved marine mammals, wanted to be a veterinarian, and kind of just took each step one at a time and kept going with it.
You spent a lot of time in school, 4 year bachelor of science, 4 year doctor of veterinary medicine, and 3 year master of veterinary medicine. What is the typical educational track you’d need to follow to become a vet?
After high school most people do an undergraduate degree. So you can either go to college for two years and then transfer to university or you can go straight to university. After that you can go straight to veterinary school or you can take some time off, I actually took off a couple of years and was a veterinary technician and did some research in the field down in Argentina with seals, which was really fun. Then I went to vet school, spent the next 4 years at vet school after 3-4 years of undergrad and once you’re in vet school you can work with any animal you want. After vet school I did a masters degree so I did a masters of preventative medicine. I wanted to work with marine mammals and a lot of marine mammals are out in the field.
Throughout school you held a number of intern and extern positions. What are some of the most important things you learned and how can people make the most of these opportunities?
After vet school I did the masters program and then I did a small animal internship. That’s basically a training program and you can come out of school and be a vet and work with any species but I kind of wanted a bit more training with specialists cause I basically wanted to be a better vet. I went and did that and if you are pursuing any kind of specialty you should also go and do that training and do a residency, which you would do after your one year internship. I did an internship with small animal medicine because that’s the most basic internship you can do. They have a high volume of patients so you would see a lot of patients and do a lot of stuff very quickly in the one year. A lot of students do that and it was just really helpful, a lot just for confidence when you’re a new vet because you are there and you are being supervised by a specialist and you can ask questions to the specialists and you feel like you’re getting a really good reliable answer from somebody who knows their stuff.
That was really nice opposed to coming out of vet school and being on your own and figuring things out on your own, it was nice to get that extra year of training to feel like I was doing things well. Then I did a year in private practice after that, in small animal medicine. Now I’m doing an internship with marine mammals so it’s another specialty program where I’m intensively focusing on marine animals and again getting training from people who have worked in the field for a really long time rather than going to a facility and trying to figure things out on my own. It’s been really really helpful getting in the door and meeting lots of people and gaining confidence with different kinds of species and learning how to care for them better.
That’s what I’m learning in terms of my internship and I also workwith a lot of externs here at The Marine Mammal Center. They are vet students who are coming through the center for about three weeks at a time. I’m basically training them and giving them a little snapshot into my life so they can see what this job entails and if it’s something they’d want to pursue working towards, either at a place like this or even with wildlife in general and just seeing how that differs because it differs a lot from working with small animals in a clinic that you would take your dog or cat to. So I’m teaching almost every day, lots and lots of people come through here for short periods of training.
Did you have a special focus or concentration in school? What are the educational options for students doing their masters or PhD?
It depends on the school you go to and if they have tracking. I went to UC Davis and we had tracking so I did the zoo & wildlife track. You can do small animals, you can do equine, you can do large animals, the wildlife track starts with small animals like cats and dogs and then you do larger animals like cows and sheep. You study some of everything because wildlife is so vast, along the way I also studied birds and reptiles and amphibians. The most education I got regarding wildlife was outside of school. I did a lot of special courses during the summers and that’s actually where I got most of my training and also probably what helped me continue to get other training opportunities. One program I did was Envirovet, unfortunately the funding has run out for that program, it was an amazing program, we spent sometime at Harbor Branch in Florida and learned about fish, amphibians, marine mammals, we spent some time at White Oak and learned about large species like ungulates, then we went to South Africa for a few weeks and were able to do anesthesias and transportations of animals at different locations around the country. The best part about that program was working with other vets and students from around the world and also learning about climate change and One Health.
I spent some time at an aquarium in Vancouver, I went there three summers in a row, helping with their harbor seal rehab. That got me good training with medication and tube feeding and some of the basic treatment stuff. I worked with Elephant seals, mostly doing population studies and I got to help with a couple entanglements that we were able to remove. I spent some time in Costa Rica working with sea turtles, I was doing beach patrolling just to get the turtles out of the way. I spent time working in Belize working on a project with Bottlenose Dolphins, again for me it was to learn how one works with Dolphins, there was a lot happening with the population there with ocean trends, temperature, feed, stuff like that in terms of the habitat. Just putting all of those things together is probably where I got most of my training from. Different extracurricular activities. My masters degree I did on a pathogen called Sarcocystis neurona which is a parasite which was previously not found in marine mammals, I think it has only been seen in otters, harbor seals before that. Any day now I will publish this paper that I’ve been working on and get that information out there. We actually discovered a new genotype of this species and found that it was infecting six new species that had never been seen with this infection before. Pretty interesting stuff and again getting to work with different people, I got to go work with the National Institutes of Health and I got to work in the lab, learn about the molecular and genetic fields. I got to go up to Oregon and Vancouver to collect samples. This year I’m learning more medicine but also a lot of necropsy and pathology as well.
Did you always want to work with marine animals and did you always want to work with larger animals?
I absolutely love marine mammals, they’re my favourite. I like anything large (laughs) anything large and dangerous is exciting to work with. I love wild animals. I spent some time both in South America and in Kenya working with a lot of large mammals, elephants, seals, rhinos, zebras, hippos, I like marine animals the best but all those other large ones are just spectacular too. They’ve all got their cool things about them either physiology or behavioural. I think I just like the big guys cause they’re exciting to work with, just a little dangerous.
Sounds like you’ve been able to travel a lot with this job.
Definitely. It’s expensive but I’ve been able to fit some stuff in there. I love traveling.
The Marine Mammal Center is responsible for almost two thirds of the California coastline, do you get called out for a lot of rescues? What are those calls like?
We have a pretty amazing network here, like you said we handle about two thirds of the California coastline. We actually have three facilities that we operate. The main one here in Sausalito, where I work, and we also have two additional facilities in Monterey and San Luis Obispo and they’ll go out and rescue animals and keep them over there for a day or two to stabilize and then transport them up here to the main facility. We have a whole team that does just the rescues and that consists mostly of volunteers, we’ve got maybe 5 paid staff in that area and hundreds of volunteers. Basically what happens is someone from the public will give us a call and give us a little information about what type of animal they think it is, what species, where it’s located and why they’re calling about it, what’s wrong with it. Then we’ll send one of our volunteers out to assess the situation, all of our volunteers have a certain level of training, some more than others, to be able to assess the animal as to whether they should be brought in or not or whether it’s a normal animal behaviour. A lot of elephant seals that are molting, which is a normal behaviour, but will get called into us because the public doesn’t know that they are actually supposed to be on the beach not moving much for a certain period of time. So we get someone from our volunteer team to go out and check on the animal and decide whether it should come in or not. Once they determine that the animal should come in then we send a larger group of volunteers to collect the animal.
I mostly do stuff here at the hospital but I have been out on several rescues. It can be tricky, a lot of times these animals when they’re being brought in are pretty lethargic so a lot of the time we’re able to catch them fairly easily…by our standards (laughs). So we’ll go out and coordinate and bring our boards to herd the animals, we can usually fit all our animals into carriers. Then sometimes we use nets as well. If it’s a lethargic enough animal then we’ll go ahead and board it into a carrier, otherwise we’ll use a net and transport it to the carrier. Then they’ll transport it back to a site. If it’s the main site here then myself or one of the other vets would assess the animal and decide what diagnostics we need to do with it, what medications we can start it on.
There are sometimes where we have an animal that is very large and we wouldn’t be able to bring it into the center or an animal that is otherwise healthy and may have an entanglement on it’s neck or something like that which we would be able to take off and let the animal go immediately and not need to bring it into our center for treatment. If we have an animal that’s relatively healthy and we don’t have to bring it into our center, that’s ideal, because it’s stressful for them to be here, they’re having a lot of human contact, so if they don’t need to come in it’s great to keep them out there. Those are the rescues I’m more involved in and are the trickier ones. Earlier this year I went out for an elephant seal that was entangled and it was probably about a 2,000 pound elephant seal, so a little bigger than our facility would be able to manage with the pens that we have set up here. We have a team that keeps track of entangled animals and they watch them for days and when they’re consistently in the same place and it’s an accessible safe place for us to go out to we’ll send a group out there. We went out and anesthetized the animal right there on the beach and were able to check it for an entanglement, recover it, and then watch it wake up and that was it. It was really nice to leave the animal exactly where it was and not bother it more than necessary. We’ll go out in the Monterey area because there are several animals we’ve been watching with entanglements there, so if we can go out and catch them sometimes out of the water or on rocks near the shore we’ll take off the entanglement and send them right back out cause their healthy enough and there is no need for further treatment. So those are fun, it’s nice to find a relatively healthy animal and help them out and let them go within a couple of hours.
What’s a typical day like for you? Are you in the office or usually out working with the animals?
On a typical day I’m barely able to check my email (laughs). Right now we’re at the end of a busier season, we’ve just had an unusual mortality event occur the last few months with small sea lions so we’ve had an almost record number of patients on site from about March until now(May). It’s been very very busy here. I basically start work at 7am and as soon as I get here I have to look into questions about the animals on behaviours that seem abnormal to our volunteers who are here even earlier than I am. Pretty much from 7:30 on I’m in the pens working with animals, helping give them medications, doing exams on them, we do anesthesia here so anywhere from once a day to three or four a day when it’s really busy. We do a lot of diagnostics, ultrasounds, we do X-rays, we do blood work for all of our animals. We do research studies all the time so we have a lot of research collections going on. Basically I’m working hands-on with the animals all morning non-stop and then we have regular rounds at our hospital each day at 1:30 where we’ll take about an hour to discuss all of our patients with other vets that work here, technicians, any of the volunteers who want to come.
Often times after rounds we’ll go right back out and work with the animals until about 3 or 4pm and then I’ll wrap things up with the animals and work on records, which is usually 2 to 3 hours depending on how busy the day was. Wrapping up everything else I’m usually here until 8pm most days. They are long days but they are very exciting. Today I did about 8 exams between 7 and 9:30 and then I went out and had two anesthetic producers, one was on a sea lion with a fractured jaw and we had a dentist come in and help us extract a tooth and put a wire around the fracture site. We had another anesthetic procedure on a sea lion with a bone infection so we did some X-rays, got a culture, and revised our treatment plan for that guy. It’s a lot of hands-on work. It’s a lot of the same diagnostics you would do in cats or dogs or humans even. We’re going out to do an MRI on a fur seal next Friday because she has a brain abnormality so we’re going to take her down to Redwood City, California. It’s really hands-on and really exciting.
It sounds like every day is something different.
It is definitely never boring. I often come in on my days off because they are doing things that sound really cool and I want to see them (laughs).
What are some of the biggest issues and threats to marine mammals and how are you dealing with them?
Entanglements are pretty common here. It’s hard because we often see animals with entanglements out in the wild but they are really hard to get a hold of. They are very skittish when they have these entanglements, they’ll often stay away from other animals, so they are harder to capture than other animals until they are very sick. Once they are very sick we can get our hands on them because that’s the point where they’re lethargic enough that we can approach them and they won’t run away. Those are challenging and we see a fair amount of those.
I’ve seen a fair amount of gunshots since I’ve been here, which is always sad. I had a sea lion that had a gunshot in the head, lots of sea lions are missing eyes due to gunshot wounds. We can treat the ones that we’re able to treat, we’ll extract bullets, we can remove eyes if we need to, if they have one good eye and one not good eye they can still make it in the wild, which is nice. We have one sea lion who was shot and lost both his eyes and as much as I love seeing animals in the wild I think that having a blind sea lion at a facility who can tell that story is an amazing thing. I think that can help everyone learn. Everyone who sees that sea lion will realize that it’s very abnormal, see that it’s missing its eyes, everyone can learn from that, it’s a very powerful statement.
Getting the word out there is important. We have an amazing education team here at the center, we have over 1,100 volunteers, several hundred of them work in education. We have a whole team here at the center, there are people out at Pier 39 in San Francisco so whenever anyone goes to see the sea lions the volunteers are there to give them information. Educating people is going to be number one to help decrease things that have to do with human interaction with these animals. That’s another thing you see that’s not as common is infectious diseases and toxins that have to do indirectly with humans. Either from toxins that get into the water from runoff or toxins that are in bloom and are potentially on the rise due to climate change. A lot of that has to do with education about climate change and how important that is and how it affects our animals. We don’t deal with too many endangered species here but we have one on site right now so we’re getting the word out that while our species are not endangered they are usually closely related to species who are. Just making sure that people are aware of the impact of entanglements, toxins, human interactions on these animals. A lot of times the research we do translates to human health, we’re using them as sentinels for impacts on human health because we are very impacted by ocean health as well. Getting a lot of information from these animals and educating people is really important and really useful.
If you don’t live in California and aren’t able to volunteer with The Marine Mammal Center what can people do if they want to get involved and help out.
We are a non-profit and we are run completely on donations so donating is always helpful. We put the money we get to good use. Anywhere along the coastline there are similar facilities and getting involved with any of those facilities. If you’re not near a coast and you can’t afford to donate, education will be the number one thing. Getting the word out. We help with a lot of school projects so people and school groups come from all over the country to visit. I talk to kids all over the country and help them with school projects, any questions they might have, and provide information. Just sharing information, getting the word out, and volunteering or donating if possible.
Do you have any final advice for someone looking to become a veterinarian?
I’d say for anyone who want’s to pursue a career in veterinary medicine other than with cats and dogs or horses or large animals, you have to go get training out of school. Most of the time you have to pay for it, I’ve used my loans that I was receiving for veterinary school, instead of going out on weekends or going out for dinner I’d just save it up all year long and then do a program during the summer to get more training.
Veterinary school is very expensive, much more so than I ever realized before I started (laughs) it’s a lot of money. I’m very happy with where I am, I’m really excited that I did it but I’ll probably be paying for it every month until I’m 60 (laughs). That said when you’re in vet school you feel you can’t go out and do these programs because they’re expensive. My trip with Envirovet was a few thousand dollars and I had all these loans and I couldn’t afford to spend the extra money but I think it was absolutely worth the money to add a little extra to my debt for that program. What I got out of it and where it got me, I’m sure that every single program that I’ve gotten into since then is because I did that program. And it was worth so much more than that. It seems like extra money to go out and take these opportunities on top of what your’e already paying for school but it pays off to do those extra programs if you really want to get into the wildlife field. That’s what people are going to look at on your resume, it will stand out, and it will make you more confident knowing you can work with these different species and they are really the most fun anyways. It’s well worth it. Do as many extracurricular activities as you can because that’s what’s going to get you into good places.
Main Image: Dr. Barbosa administering a sedative to a subadult male northern elephant seal via pole syringe (Photo by Sharon Jackman)