A scorpion, bearded dragon and Byrd: One UNC-CH student’s journey to vet-hood

Courtney Byrd poses for a portrait in front of a collage of animals. Byrd dreams of being a vet one day and has found outlets at UNC-Chapel Hill to fulfill her love of animals. Photo by Mimi Tomei.

By Mimi Tomei

Orion skirts across the palms of Courtney Byrd’s hands.

Byrd has held snakes around her neck and seen an octopus feeding off the shadowy coastline of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands at twilight. But still, Orion, a black forest scorpion, makes Byrd’s hands gently tremble.

Byrd delicately avoids Orion’s two large pincers, which resemble pointy oven mitts, and the venomous stinger at the end of his tail. Orion’s sting is only about as harmful as that of a bee or hornet, but he still doesn’t seem like a cute and cuddly animal used to teach children about wildlife.

Byrd doesn’t treat him much differently than she would any other animal. She approaches him with respect.

“It felt just like holding a hermit crab, (but) the legs were a little bit spikier and sharper,” Byrd said.

A WISE place for peace

Orion is one of the animals 19-year-old Byrd works with in Carolina Wildlife Information and Science Education, or WISE, a group that creates wildlife education programs to bring to local schools and community organizations.

When all her activities and classes stress her out, Byrd finds solace in WISE and its animals. WISE’s home — a small, dark room in Wilson Hall — contains shelves and tables holding various animal enclosures and a mini fridge filled with fruits and vegetables – and mice and worms.

“Yesterday, I was sitting in the library doing chemistry. I actually like (organic chemistry) so far, but I was like, ‘this kind of sucks. I don’t want to do this,’” Byrd said. “So I just went to the WISE lab and sat on the floor, and it was kind of peaceful, just being around the animals.”

She was surrounded by Ruth the box turtle and Murphy the bearded dragon, who live in large enclosures on the floor. Other residents of the lab include snakes, toads and even a tarantula named Scout.

Finding her place

Byrd is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill studying biology. She has loved animals her entire life and hopes to turn this passion into a career as a vet.

Her road to vet-hood isn’t an easy one. Getting into vet school after college is difficult, since there are only around 40 doctorate vet programs nationwide. UNC-CH lacks both an undergraduate vet program and dedicated pre-vet advisers. The biology major at UNC-CH is intense and involves many chemistry classes, which Byrd finds challenging.

But Byrd has found her niche at UNC-CH.

In addition to Byrd and her roommate Emily, two yet-unnamed hermit crabs reside in Teague Residence Hall. The creatures inhabit a large glass aquarium, where they live comfortably, alongside a small, plastic palm tree and with various places for them to hide and dig in several layers of pebbles and sand.

The crabs have access to fresh and salt water. Situated inside their home are sponges, strategically placed so the crabs can get a drink without drowning in their water bowls. They have special hermit crab food, which Byrd supplements with bits of produce she sometimes brings them from the dining hall salad bar.

“Last night, we had a fire drill at like 11 p.m., and one of my first thoughts was, ‘get the hermit crabs,’” Byrd said. “I think if there really was a fire, I’d get them first, as opposed to my laptop and everything.”

‘It’s not just cute animals’

Byrd participates in the UNC-CH Pre-Veterinary Club, which brings veterinary guest speakers to campus and helps students navigate the vet school application process by sharing resources and opportunities. The club is a small but supportive community, according to Vice President Simone McCluney.

While home for winter break, Byrd found a drawing she made as a child of her wearing a lab coat and treating a dog, surrounded by bottles of medicine and syringes.

As a college student, Byrd has found herself in this environment often as she has shadowed vets in both Chapel Hill and Wilmington. Although she hopes to become an exotic animal vet, Byrd draws inspiration from the companion animal vets she worked with, particularly Dr. Charles Miller at Triangle Veterinary Medicine in Chapel Hill. She’s observed many procedures with Miller.

With gauze in her medical glove-clad hands, Byrd has held a stomach in place during a gastropexy, a type of surgery that involves stitching the stomach inside an animal’s abdomen. Byrd even got to cut the stitches at the end of a spaying procedure.

“I felt like a surgeon,” Byrd said.

The experience of shadowing, in addition to cleaning animal habitats at the Duke Lemur Center and working with lab mice and toads at the UNC School of Medicine, has taught Byrd that being a vet is more than just playing with animals.

“I liked it when I was little because of cute animals, but now I’m realizing that it’s not just cute animals,” Byrd said.  “It’s also medicine and a lot of science and chemistry involved, and surgery, which is bloody and gross.

“Obviously, it’s a lot of time commitment, since it takes up so much of your life, which I’m definitely starting to realize,but I’m definitely still interested — even after all that.”

Nothing new

Molly Sprecher, a photojournalism major at UNC-CH and one of Byrd’s suitemates, created a photo story on Byrd. Sprecher witnessed the relationships Byrd created with many of her animals as she followed Byrd around to all of her activities.

“There were a lot of moments where I had a hard time getting a good photo because she wanted to play with the animals and was constantly telling me all the things she knew about them,” Sprecher said.

Byrd’s ability to emotionally connect to animals isn’t new though.

When she was in third grade at Parsley Elementary School in Wilmington, Byrd bought a stuffed polar bear. She got the stuffed animal­ as a memento, hoping to preserve in her memory what her favorite animal looked like in case it went extinct in her lifetime.

“I wanted to have something to remember them by, to show my kids, ‘This is what bears used to look like that lived when I lived.’”

Edited by Ana Irizarry