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Have you met… Dr. Lara Cusack?

Have you met Dr. Lara Cusack, assistant professor in the Zoo, Exotics, and Wildlife Service in the Department of Companion Animals at the Atlantic Veterinary College? Spend the next few minutes getting to know her a little better.
| Atlantic Veterinary College
Rachel Cutcliffe
Dr. Lara Cusack with an adult wild panther that was successfully rehabilitated.
Dr. Lara Cusack with an adult wild panther that was successfully rehabilitated.

Why did you choose to specialize in zoo, exotics, and wildlife (ZEW) medicine? 

I have always been intrigued by nature and grew up exploring the beaches and woods around Prince Edward Island which seemed to translate naturally into rescuing injured wild animals. When trying to obtain care for injured wild animals, it became apparent that there weren’t many veterinary clinics treating these species, so I entered veterinary medicine with a desire to help those animals that had less access to care (wildlife and other unowned animals).

I am incredibly passionate about animal welfare and wildlife conservation. It’s a privilege to work with so many fascinating species and to be involved with conservation and endangered species medicine. My passion for this field of medicine has only grown over the years which is what lead me to pursue internship and residency training to specialize in zoo, exotics, and wildlife medicine. 

What does an average day look like for you in your role?

As I treat wildlife, exotic pets (i.e., guinea pigs, rabbits, reptiles, and birds), and zoo species, there are lots of surprises and not many average days. The unpredictable nature of this field of veterinary medicine can be a challenge, but it is also what makes it so exciting.

In general, we start off with treatments for hospitalized patients which are usually a combination of exotic pets and wildlife. As a teaching institution, we have doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) students and a post-DVM internship for a veterinarian specializing in ZEW medicine, so we have case rounds to discuss the specialized care of these patients. Then we dive into new cases and procedures which can range from a CT scan on a pet rabbit with dental disease to a fracture repair on a wild osprey.

In the middle of this, I might get a call about a stranded marine mammal in failing health - last year I assisted with a stranded beluga whale - or another wild animal that requires veterinary care. I also lecture and teach as part of the veterinary curriculum, offer consultations for other organizations and agencies that deal with wildlife and exotic animals, and have ongoing research projects aimed at improving the health and welfare of wildlife and exotic pets.

As the only zoo, exotics, and wildlife veterinary referral service in the maritime provinces, we are very busy.

What is one of the most interesting cases you’ve had in your career?

I spent time working in China with rescued black bears. Seeing these bears heal medically and blossom with personality after arrival at the sanctuary was just amazing. They went from being timid and incredibly sick to being full of play. Watching them heal remains one of my most prized experiences.

Can you share a story about one of the most rewarding moments in your career?

The most rewarding cases are those where I’ve been successful at saving a life or rehabilitating a wild animal and releasing it into the wild despite significant obstacles.

Cases that come to mind include the eagle that is currently under our care and has recovered from first-of-its-kind spinal surgery. We are fortunate at AVC to have the equipment, resources, and expertise to perform a surgery like that. It would not have been possible in many other facilities and the eagle would have been euthanized as a result. You can read more about bald eagle 450 here.

Then there’s the case of an adult wild panther that was successfully rehabilitated after having surgery to repair fractures in three legs. Being able to watch an animal return to its natural environment in the wild is a phenomenal and special experience.

What are the biggest barriers you face at the AVC Wildlife Service?

Working with so many diverse species, there is often a much smaller database of information regarding care, medications, and treatments when compared to dogs and cats, and other domestic species. This can make it challenging to provide optimal care.

Perhaps most frustrating are the cases where we are limited by staffing and financial resources, as is often the case with wildlife that do not have an owner to pay for their care. We have an incredibly dedicated and passionate small team and many students that are interested in learning. However, funding and resources for wildlife care can be quite limited, which can present some very difficult decisions.

For example, we have had to limit our intake of wild bird cases over the last year due to avian influenza as we don’t currently have the space to safely isolate them from other birds, such as client-owned parrots.

We would be able to greatly improve our ability to care for both wildlife and exotic pets with additional space and staffing for animal care. Unfortunately, due to limited financial resources, we often have to make treatment (i.e. bloodwork, x-rays, surgery) and euthanasia decisions based on finances.

What would you like our readers to know about the Zoo, Exotics, and Wildlife Service at AVC?

I think, in general, people have a growing interest in animals and the environment, and the recognition of the interconnectedness of animal, human, and environmental health, or the One Health concept.

From a wildlife conservation perspective, we’re seeing unprecedented losses of animals globally. Many of these declines are related directly back to human activity, whether from habitat loss, land development, or from international transport/trade of exotic animals for the pet industry.

Many new emerging diseases in humans originate from interactions with wild animals. Tying it all together, animals in wildlife centres are often sentinel (or the first) cases for many of these diseases, and many wildlife facilities, such as the AVC Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, have ongoing disease surveillance programs that can inform our efforts to prevent and control emerging diseases in humans.

While many exotic animals are sold as beginner pets (e.g. guinea pigs), they require advanced care and have incredibly specialized needs. As caretakers of these exotic pets, I believe we have a responsibility to ensure that we do well by these animals.

We should all feel a responsibility to be caretakers of the environment and wild animals. The most common reason wild animals present for veterinary care is related to trauma, which is most often due to anthropogenic or human causes.

Even though we still have much to learn about many zoo, exotic, and wildlife species, we know that these animals are capable of pain just like other animals, and we can do our part to alleviate this pain, where possible.

Supporting the AVC Zoo, Exotics, and Wildlife Service has both direct and indirect benefits for human, animal, and environmental health.

Dr. Lara Cusack is an assistant professor in the Zoo, Exotics, and Wildlife Service in the Department of Companion Animals at the Atlantic Veterinary College. The AVC Wildlife Service provides veterinary care for sick and injured wild animals and is the only place in Atlantic Canada where wildlife can receive a full spectrum of diagnostic, medical, and surgical services.

The University of Prince Edward Island has selected the Atlantic Veterinary College’s Wildlife Service as the 2022 recipient of donations for Giving Tuesday. Giving Tuesday is the world’s largest generosity movement that inspires people to give, collaborate, and celebrate generosity and takes place on Tuesday, November 29.

Giving Tuesday donations will continue to help AVC’s Wildlife Service to treat sick and injured wildlife, such as bald eagle 450. This year, a very generous donor has offered to match any donations up to $10,000. To learn more or to donate please visit or call 902.894.2888.

Media Contact

Rachel Cutcliffe
External Engagement Officer
Atlantic Veterinary College

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