sealPurdue News

March 2000

Vet students experience hands-on wildlife medicine

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Tracy Sudlow learned firsthand the importance of the Alaska SeaLife Center when a sickly baby seal was placed in her arms.

The veterinary major from Purdue University served as the animal's "surrogate" mother during her internship last summer at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. Now, thanks in part to her efforts, the center has its first full-scale national internship program.

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The harbor seal became her ward after a well-intentioned, but misguided, sightseer took the pup from the bank of a river while kayaking near Anchorage.

"The pup probably did look like it was abandoned, but its mother was most likely hunting for food because that's what they do. People just don't know that, and they can end up causing harm by trying to do good," Sudlow says. "The kayaker took the pup with him and then to the wildlife office in Anchorage, and from there it came to the SeaLife Center."

When the baby seal arrived at the center, it hadn't eaten and was sick.

"I had to feed the pup from a bottle and it became my responsibility," Sudlow says. "It took a lot of care and rehabilitation, but the pup did survive. We named it 'Kayak.'"

After the baby seal was old enough and strong enough to live on its own, it and several other rehabilitated seals from the center were released back into the wild.

"It was wonderful — a great feeling of accomplishment," says Sudlow. "The whole experience helped me do something I wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. It opened a new door for me and changed my goals. I'd like to return to Alaska sometime.

"I just wish sightseers would think twice before they interfere with nature."

That was her first experience during her five-week internship at the wildlife center, but it wasn't her last. The Indianapolis native also worked with stellar sea lions, adult harbor seals and other sea life indigenous to the Northern Pacific Ocean system.

"It was a unique opportunity for me because we are in the Midwest and there just aren't any large sea mammals around here," Sudlow quips.

Her success in the program contributed to the decision to expand the Alaska SeaLife Center internship program this year to veterinary students from colleges and universities from across the nation.

The program began as a collaboration between Purdue and the Alaska SeaLife Center. It started after Purdue assistant professor in veterinary pathobiology Paul Snyder made numerous trips to the area during the past four years to help monitor research and study the ecosystem of sea otters, harlequin ducks, pigeon guillemots and river otters — all endangered species.

"The center has a huge research facility with a full-service veterinary hospital and pharmacy, and that's what was attractive to us," Snyder says. "What we did was study some of the common problems and illnesses in those animals."

During this four-year period, Snyder worked with fellow Purdue veterinary professor Dr. Kevin Kazacos at the center to investigate why sea otters in Resurrection Bay along the Alaskan shoreline had such a high incidence of a deadly infection.

"What we found was that a seafood cannery dumped fish waste into a water outlet at the bay, and the sea otters were eating the fish waste instead of their usual died of salmon," Snyder says. "A parasite from the intestines of the fish was in the waste, and the sea otters had no immunity to that particular parasite."

When the cannery learned of the problem, it changed its water containment system.

Funding for those projects and for the $56 million center came in part from the Exxon Valdez oil-spill settlement.

"That was just one of several projects we worked on," says Snyder. "The project also enabled us to send three other Purdue veterinary students to Alaska during those four years."

Those students, Kathy J. Stoffel of West Terre Haute, Bryan A. Baetsle of West Lafayette and Leslie Shockley-Walter of Evansville, all spent time in Alaska working with sea mammals before receiving their veterinary degrees from Purdue.

Following the success of those students, Snyder and Pam Tuomi, a veterinarian at the center, worked out the details to provide an ongoing perceptorship, or intern program, for students of veterinary schools. Sudlow was the first student accepted into the program.

"We welcome the opportunity to work with veterinary students like Tracy. They bring renewed energy and enthusiasm to our program of veterinary care," says Tuomi.

Interested students should contact the veterinary school they attend for more information, or contact Tuomi at

"We hope to send two Purdue students to the center this spring," says Snyder. "Richard Gerhold, a junior veterinary major from East Greenville, Pa., has already committed to going."

Sudlow encourages anyone majoring in veterinary medicine to apply for the program.

Sources: Paul Snyder, (765) 494-9676

Tracy Sudlow, (765) 268-2467,

Writer: Cynthia Sequin, (765) 494-2073;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;


Purdue veterinary major Tracy Sudlow holds "Kayak," a harbor seal pup she rehabilitated as an intern at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Sudlow)
A publication-quality photograph is available at the News Service Web site and at the ftp site. Photo ID: sudlow.sealife

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