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Latoya Schultz plans career around exotic creepy-crawly creatures

FOR RELEASE: May 23, 2005

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Last April, Cornell senior Latoya Schultz wore her boa (a snake) as a boa (a scarf) with an outfit while modeling for the Minorities in Industrial Labor Relations Student Organization (mILRso) fashion show. Afterward, she stuck around to answer questions, not about herself or her outfit, but about her snake. The treasurer of the Cornell Herpetological Society, Schultz says she enjoys educating people about animals.

"I've never really been a cat-and-dog-type of person," she says. "I love animals, specifically exotic species."

Although pets are forbidden in the animal science major's apartment, the she keeps two snakes -- a Dumeril's boa and a California king snake -- and an exotic albino-collared dove named Fire.

This fall Schultz will enter the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, where she plans to specialize in exotic and wildlife species. Her desire to become a veterinarian began as a child growing up in Guyana, South America. Veterinarians are rare there, but when she was 7 years old, she met a friend of her mother's who was a veterinarian for the local army base and trained German shepherds. Schhultz looked forward to his visits to her house to check on her dog and loved to watch him work. He let her help him, and ever since she has wanted to work with animals.

Schultz, whose mother is of East Indian descent, and her father has an African lineage, says that by growing up in Guyana, she was exposed to many different religions and races. At Cornell she has taken on an active role in this area by serving as a member of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Alumni Association Diversity Committee as well as student director of the CALS Alumni Association

As a Cornell Presidential Research Scholar, Schultz received a reduction in her loans and a grant to conduct research.

She worked with George Kollias, the George J. Hyman professor of wildlife and exotic animal medicine at the veterinary college. On occasion she accompanied Kollias to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park in Syracuse, N.Y., where Kollias provides full-service health care to more than 500 animals. One of her most memorable visits involved checking that the blood chemistry (levels of protein, hemoglobin, phosphorus, toxins and more) of some of the animals fell within normal ranges. It was a big responsibility to track whether an animal might be at risk of getting sick, she says.

In Kollias' lab, Schultz researched how bird feeders could act as a vector to spread conjunctivitis in house finches through a bacterium called Mycoplasma gallisepticum . Normally found in poultry farms, the bacterium has caused an epidemic in house finches. She has also been working on a follow-up study to the 1990 New York State River Otter reintroduction program. Kollias believes that heavy metal poisoning was the likely cause for the decline in river otters and offered Schultz the opportunity to help him compile scarce otter blood and tissue samples to see if excessive levels of mercury or selenium were present.

After finishing vet school, Schultz says she would like to do a two-year residency in exotic and wildlife medicine. While she has been warned that it is harder to make a living caring for exotics, she thinks it is important to follow one's passion and let the rest follow. She would like to work for a zoo or abroad, perhaps even in Guyana, where there are few vets.

"I hope to work where I am needed most," she says. "I'd like to teach at some point, too, and find the next kid who I see myself in."