By Douglas R. Mader
I’ve got some breaking news—I’m a reptile/amphibian specialist now! That’s right. The author of the "Vet Q & A” and the "Vet Report,” read right here in REPTILES magazine for the last 20 years, is a reptile/amphibian specialist!
If my mommy were still alive she would say, "Huh?”
Did you know that up until this very column (does it feel any different for you now?) your go-to reptile/amphibian expert was not a specialist? That’s right. The American Veterinary Medical Association had no recognized specialty category for reptiles and amphibians up until just two years ago. There were dog and cat specialists (of which I am one), pig specialists, horse specialists and even cattle specialists—but no reptile and amphibian specialists.
The American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, after a long, hard-earned effort, finally granted a specialty board in reptile/amphibian practice in 2010. To date, there are only 12 recognized ABVP reptile/amphibian specialists in the world, four of which, myself included, were recognized this year. The most recent diplomates are myself, Dr. Ryan DeVoe, Dr. Eric Klaphake and Dr. Leigh Clayton, the first woman to achieve reptile/amphibian diplomate status.
After 27 years of veterinary practice, two books, several dozen peer-reviewed publications and hundreds of columns, magazine articles, blogs and more, I could never call myself a reptile specialist. I think I could safely call myself an expert, but I am sure there are some that would argue that, as well.
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Other than telling you about my tortoise, Dewe, that passed away last year, during the past 20 years of columns, I have not really told you much about myself—like how I got into this.
I was born in the upper Florida Keys. Our house was just off a Mangrove swamp, which was always crawling with all sorts of cool stuff. My older brother used to take me snake, lizard and frog hunting. That was cool. One day, he hid an Indigo snake in the laundry basket. My mom went to go do the laundry and discovered the snake amidst her pile of clothes. She screamed. I was hooked.
My father was a U.S. Army veteran. He fought in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Being an Army brat, I moved all over the country. I was surrounded by snakes almost everywhere I lived, except for a stint in the ostensibly snakeless Hawaii. But, wait! There are snakes in Hawaii, and I found one. Known as the Hawaiian blind snake, the extremely scarce, reclusive, diminutive beast is rarely longer than 6 inches and only a few grams in weight. It is fossorial, living almost its entire life underground, so the vast majority of people who live in Hawaii never see one. I was so excited that I told my high school biology teacher. He thought I was lolo (Hawaiian for crazy). Had he only known that one day I would grow up to be a reptile/amphibian specialist!
After high school, I moved to California to attend college. I always kept a snake or two in my dorm room. When I was a college senior, I worked as an undergraduate advisor. I kept two Jackson’s chameleons in my office—visiting the fascinating lizards turned out to be a great excuse for the shy students to come in and talk.
I worked my way through college, graduate school and veterinary school. As a starving student there aren’t many things you won’t do for tuition money. In graduate school, I raised Burmese pythons (this was way back when owning a regular, brown/black Burm was still really cool - long before tall the color morphs came on the scene). I got $50 a piece for the babies.
An interesting side note, one generally only known by friends, is that even though I had a passion for reptiles, I started my veterinary career as a horse doctor. The herps were just a hobby. I had every intention to become an equine surgeon - until one day, when a drunken driver changed my life. In the long process of recovery, I started volunteering my time in the zoo and wildlife ward at the veterinary school. It was during this convalescence that I made the decision to dedicate my career to exotic animal medicine.
After graduation from veterinary school, I completed a residency in primate and zoo animal medicine at U.C. Davis. From there, I went on to start an exotic pet veterinary practice in Southern California. I did a lot of writing/lecturing and was also an adjunct professor at U.C. Davis. I felt it was important to have a "specialist” recognition. So, I decided to study for, and ultimately pass, the examination to become a diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, canine/feline specialty (because they did not have a reptile/amphibian specialty at that time).
More than a million published words and 27 years later, I have finally reached the Holy Grail of reptile/amphibian diplomate status! Thank you all for hanging in there with me over the past 20 years when I was just an inexperienced wannabe. Now, I may even be taken seriously.
Most importantly, my congratulations go out to my colleagues in this year’s diplomate class. I am honored to be in your circle, as well as with the first eight reptile/amphibian diplomates. Keep up the great work! REPTILES
Douglas R. Mader, M.S., DVM, DABVP (REPTILE/AMPHIBIAN), is a graduate of the University of California, Davis. He owns the Marathon Veterinary Hospital in the Conch Republic, and is a world-renowned lecturer, author and editor. He sits on the review boards of several scientific and veterinary journals.