EXCHANGE: Vet students make call to Wildlife Prairie Park


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HANNA CITY, Ill. (AP) — A half dozen veterinary students quickly descended on the 100-pound beast, a cougar armed with teeth and claws made for tearing apart large prey such as deer.

Under sedation, the cougar, named Tipper, is more impressive than threatening, though a few moments of blinking and heavy breathing are quickly met with a heavier dose of sedative.

Tuesday was the first time in Tipper's 15-year lifetime — she was born at Wildlife Prairie Park, where she lives with her litter mate Hillary — that she's received preventive veterinary care. Fourth-year students from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, who will graduate in about two weeks, checked the feline for everything from joint mobility to gum disease to red and white blood cell counts.

The park has a long-standing relationship with U of I to provide annual visits for the resident elk and bison herds, but historically, care was provided to the other display or educational animals only on an as-needed basis.

Programs like this that cater to both the park's educational approach and improves the quality of life for animals, said director of annual giving Rachel Sprenkle, is an example of progress the park has made since transferring from state ownership to private ownership by a non-profit.

"This is the first step towards a really proactive wellness approach," Sprenkle said.

Even Sprenkle's role is an example of a new strategy at Wildlife Prairie Park. Sprenkle's approach to connecting with individuals or businesses in the community that are potential donors means more clearly communicating the park's needs.

"What we find is people just need to understand the needs of the park, that it exists and better understand what it is and where we're going," Sprenkle said. "Once they understand that story they really seem to latch on."

When park administration had the idea to implement wellness checks for animals such as Tipper, Sprenkle was able to connect with a donor, an area couple, to underwrite the program for $10,000 for medical supplies and housing for the U of I students and staff.

The connection is particularly exciting, executive director Doug Dillow notes, because the couple had never before donated to the park.

"There was very limited fundraising done until the ownership issue was resolved, because there was a lot of hesitation to do any fundraising until we could be crystal clear with donors where was the money going and who was in control of how the money would be used," Dillow said.

In some ways, Dillow said, Wildlife Prairie Park is operating as a "37-year-old startup." While the park has been in operation for decades, its new ownership has brought about a reorganization of staff and strategies, mostly in finding new ways to engage the community to boost attendance and funds.

Some of their efforts have already paid off. The park has nearly tripled its membership in the last three years, with 2,500 sold so far this year compared with 900 in Spring 2012. Attendance has climbed in the last two years, up 7 percent in 2015 from last year.

Even the park's population is growing. With more cows in both the elk and bison herd, Dillow expects up to 20 calves in each next spring. Historically the herds have experienced a birth rate of about six or seven a year.

Projects such as a crowdfunding campaign to launch a deer petting zoo online at Indiegogo.com and professional-level disc golf course opening this summer partially funded by the Peoria Frisbee Club are examples of new attractions aimed to boost park use.

Those relationships are intended to both improve the park itself and benefit the park's partners.

Dr. Julia Whittington, a clinical associate professor of veterinary medicine at U of I, said Wildlife Prairie Park's new partnership provided a unique opportunity for veterinary students.

"Every aspect of what they've done both last week and what we're going to do this week is different," Whittington said. "Even every day. For instance this morning we're going to mobilize our cougar and this afternoon we're going to be doing exams on frogs. You think about just the diversity right there, it's tremendous."

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, http://bit.ly/1JDCOQm

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Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com

This is an Illinois Exchange story shared by the (Peoria) Journal Star.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Laura Nightengale - (peoria) Journal Star

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