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Veterinarian Technician August 2006 (Vol 27, No 8) Focus: Reproduction

On the Cover: "A Talk with Mary Cotter, EdD, LVT"

by Andrea Vardaro Tucker

    Dr. Mary Cotter may be relatively new to the veterinary technology profession, but she is no stranger to helping animals. Over the course of her varied and lengthy career — in which she has worked as an advertising creative director, a Russian language teacher, and a freelance photographer for People magazine, among others — Mary stumbled upon a passion for rabbits after meeting one very special bunny she named "Richard the Rabbithearted."

    Twenty years after Richard entered her life, Mary manages Rabbit Rescue & Rehab in New York, teaches in the veterinary technology program at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, and has even combined two of her careers — rabbit rescue and photography — by shooting commercial calendars of rescued rabbits.

    Mary advises technicians not to be afraid to create their own path to success. Here, she talks to Veterinary Technician about her path to her most recent fulfilling career.

    Why did you decide to pursue veterinary technology certification?

    While volunteering as the "rabbit person" at a large shelter more than a decade ago, I assisted the shelter veterinarian, Dr. Gil Stanzione, in dog and cat surgeries. I urged him to consider spaying or neutering the shelter's rabbits and brought him some basic protocols that had been used successfully by others in the House Rabbit Society (HRS). Together, we tweaked the protocols and developed our own based on our observations of the rabbits during surgery and recovery.

    After Dr. Stanzione left the shelter, I worked with him in his house-call practice and helped him set up his own clinic. For several years, I assisted him in a variety of surgeries, all the while growing more interested in the field but becoming increasingly frustrated by how little I understood of what I was seeing. Dr. Stanzione ad­vised me to take courses in anat­omy, physiology, and microbiology, which I did, and he supported my interest with his good-humored willingness to answer the endless stream of questions I posed week after week.

    Then, in fall 2001, I was scheduled to give a rabbit talk for technicians at a major animal expo. At the last minute, I got a call from the organizers saying that my talk was being switched to a non-technician track because they had just realized that I wasn't a licensed technician. They explained that speaking to a technician audience required a veterinary technician license. That was it for me. I registered for courses in the LaGuardia program shortly after that and completed my studies in 2004.

    How has your unique career path enriched you as a technician?

    As a photojournalist, I've learned things you'd never learn in a classroom by witnessing them first-hand. Knowing my love for animals, the People photo editors assigned me many animal-related stories — from abuse cases and animal psychics to animal rights activists and factory farming and everything in between.

    My background in advertising and marketing and my experience in running my own business have given me insight into the challenges of establishing and managing a veterinary practice as a successful business. My teaching experience — especially in languages — has been very helpful in teaching veterinary medical terminology. In fact, I can't think of anything I've done professionally that has not enriched my activities as a technician!

    Tell us about your encounter with Richard the Rabbithearted.

    One day, someone shipped a rabbit to the photo editor's office at People. When I came in to pick up an assignment, I met the bunny and was smitten. I took care of him daily in the office, and gradually he became "mine." When the photo editor finally let me take him home, I couldn't bear to lock him in a cage, so I set him up — free-range — in my kitchen, and he began to teach me what I needed to know to care for him.

    With Richard as my teacher, I was constantly amazed at how little I knew and how very different rabbits were from what I'd imagined. I marvelled as he learned to open doors, play with toys, beg for food, and "train" me to understand his various needs, and I felt honored by his willingness to trust me in spite of my many blunders. Since that time, I have never been without a companion rabbit.

    Why is rabbit rescue so important?

    According to the American Humane Association, rabbits are the third most frequently surrendered pets in shelters across the United States — right after cats and dogs. And the rabbits who make it to shelters are, in a way, the lucky ones. Scores of rabbits are re­leased outdoors — often in the months following Easter — by people who no longer want to care for them and who naively think that these bunnies will "join a wild rabbit family." Domestic rabbits are not the same genus or species as wild rabbits in the United States, and when released outdoors, they usually become victims of dogs, cats, raccoons, or motor vehicles.

    Describe your work with Rabbit Rescue & Rehab and HRS.

    I founded Rabbit Rescue & Rehab about 12 years ago. We maintain a network of foster homes from which we adopt out our rescued rabbits once they are spayed or neutered, rehabilitated, and socialized. When spaces open up in our foster system, we give priority to rabbits most in need. Usually this means rabbits in municipal shelters who might otherwise be euthanized.

    After Rabbit Rescue & Rehab incorporated and we received our nonprofit status, we were licensed as the New York chapter of the HRS. (HRS is an international rescue and education organization focused on domestic rabbits with chapters or representatives in 33 states as well as in Canada, Europe, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.)

    HRS has a twofold mission: We foster and care for abandoned or relinquished domestic rabbits until perma­nent homes can be found for them, and we educate the public about rabbit care through classes, workshops, home visits, publications, and a helpline. We want to partner with shelters not only to help them with in-house rabbit care but also to relieve them of some of the burden created by the constant influx of relinquished pet rabbits.

    Besides managing the New York chapter, I serve as vice president on the Board and Executive Committee of the international HRS. I oversee the marketing and educational activities of the organization and serve on the health committee as well. I have created educational materials (flyers, brochures, posters, articles, and a video­tape on rabbit handling) for owners, shelter personnel, and veterinary staff. I also co-manage Etherbun, the largest rabbit-focused mailing list on the Internet.

    What do you still hope to accomplish?

    I like to focus my efforts on education. I'd like to help create, along with other professionals on the HRS health committee, a set of materials on companion rabbits that could be used in schools for veterinarians and veterinary technicians. At present, most technicians study rabbits only as lab animals. I'd like to see a module on companion rabbits added to the curriculum of every veterinary technology school. I also want to expand the hands-on workshops I have been running on clinical restraint and handling and train others to run them as well. There is a great need for such workshops in veterinary technology schools because veterinary technicians are the professionals who do most of the handling and nursing of rabbits in a clinical setting.

    What has been the highlight of your career?

    Highlights for me are the little things that make me feel that my efforts are making a real difference: teaching a rabbit owner to handle a really difficult, frightened animal with ease and grace and watching her eyes fill with tears at her own success; corresponding by email with a Russian rabbit owner and being able to send critically needed information; learning that my videotape on rabbit handling is being used to train students in a European veterinary school; receiving happy letters from rabbit adopters years after they've adopted. These are the real highlights for me.

    NEXT: Picture This! "Fun with Fecals"
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