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Animal Care

Class of 2023: An Amazingly Memorable Walk on the Wild Side

A first-person essay by Christian Capobianco, who after graduation will be completing a rotating internship at the University of Florida in Zoological, Small and Large Animal Medicine and Surgery.

Christian Capobianco worked with red pandas during an externship
Christian Capobianco worked with red pandas during an externship

By Christian Capobianco

As a kid, I visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom and was amazed watching the veterinarians in their on-show veterinary window treat exotic animals like lions and gorillas. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be an “animal doctor” and that I wanted to work with the wild ones.

When I was completing my undergraduate degree, I had still had that goal in mind, and I looked for a veterinary program that would provide mentorship from leaders in the field of zoological medicine.

That’s what led me to NC State!

This college is fortunate to have a world-class zoological medicine department with amazing faculty members who have been incredible mentors to my classmates and me. We’re fairly spoiled by the opportunities available to students wanting to gain exposure to nontraditional species here. Here are a few of the fun adventures that I’ve had over the past four years.

When I started at the College of Veterinary Medicine, I also began volunteering with the Turtle Rescue Team and rose through the ranks to lead it with some incredible classmates. I also got to know Dr. Greg Lewbart, who has been an incredible clinical and research mentor for me. Under Dr. Lewbart’s guidance, I gained confidence treating turtles and performing surgery and even was able to publish several case reports and a retrospective study.

Christian Capobianco dives in the Galapagos Islands.

Dr. Lewbart also offers an opportunity for third-year DVM students to travel to the Galápagos Islands on a field research trip during spring break. I had the chance to lead a health assessment project on the native Española Lava Lizards during a trip in 2022. Aside from our research, we had the opportunity to hike volcanoes, SCUBA dive and visit local conservation centers. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I had only because I chose to attend NC State.

NC State also is unique in that we have another campus on the coast! The Center for Marine Animal Science and Technology in Morehead City, North Carolina, offers students the opportunity to work with Dr. Craig Harms to learn about aquatic animal medicine. I’ve worked with him to diagnose and treat fish with infectious disease, to necropsy marine mammals to determine cause of death and to treat injured sea turtles. I also got additional exposure to aquatic animal medicine on our main campus through the school’s Aquatics Team and the Wildlife, Avian, Aquatics, and Zoological Medicine (WAAZM) club.

NC State College of Veterinary Medicine students also get an abundance of exotics experience through the school’s Exotic Animal Medicine Service during pre-clinical and clinical years. I worked closely with Dr. Sarah Ozawa, Dr. Olivia Petritz and Dr. Tara Harrison to treat a wide variety of species and have had amazing experiences from placing IV catheters in tigers to performing acupuncture in turtles. It has also been great to get advice from this team and learn what it takes to be successful in the zoological medicine field.

Regarding acupuncture, Dr. Harrison guided me in the process of becoming a certified veterinary acupuncturist, and I was able to complete my training during school. She also advises the school’s Carnivore Conservation Crew, which cares for critically endangered red wolves on campus. Providing daily husbandry for these animals and participating in their examinations under anesthesia when necessary have been amazing opportunities.

The college also allows students to have extramural time off campus during clinical year to visit other facilities. I had the pleasure of working with teams at the North Carolina Zoo, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, St. Louis Zoo and the Marine Mammal Center during my clinical year. It was such a joy getting to work with some other incredible veterinary teams and see different styles of practicing medicine — with animal species I had never seen before. I even had the chance to work with red pandas, a bucket list item for me!

When I think back on my time at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, I naturally think of all these amazing memories I’ve made and the unbelievable adventures I’ve had. However, as you can see, it’s the people who truly made the experience so special. They set the tone and pushed me to be the best I could be every day, and for that I’m so grateful. 

As I look to the future, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit anxious, not knowing what’s in store. However, I’m also immensely excited and take comfort in knowing that I’ll always have my NC State CVM family in my corner.

Tara Harrison, associate professor of Zoo and Exotic Animal Medicine, and Christian Capobianco treat turtles with accupuncture and cold laser therapy.