Seeing it All
Dr. Tom Schotman, of Lake Wales Veterninary Hospital, loves the variety and challenges of never knowing what is coming through the door.
BY MARIA IANNUCCI
Most people believe that veterinarians focus on dogs, cats, and little else. It seems that nothing may be further from the truth; people everywhere flock to their vet with their hamsters, snakes, and loved pets that are even more unique; and many will do all they can to help. One local vet in particular, though, seems to have certainly had his share of unusual patients.
Dr. Tom Schotman, one of the partners at Lake Wales Veterinary Hospital, has come a long way, both literally and figuratively, to practicing veterinary medicine. He immigrated to the United States from Holland at the age of 8, and realized shortly thereafter that the life of a vet was for him.
“As a kid growing up in Crystal River, my brother and I played a lot with the local wildlife,” said Tom. “We’d find snakes and get a book to look up what kind they were. A family friend had a German Shepard that got sick once; we all piled in the car to take the dog to Ocala to see the vet. I remember the visit; the vet impressed me. When I got home I told my mother that I was going to become a vet. Still learning the English language, she had to look it up to know what I was saying.”
Schotman attended the University of Florida, College of Veterinary Medicine, and as a student did two rotations in Exotic and Wildlife Medicine. “I always wanted to work in a mixed practice,” said Tom. “Working with both small and large animals was my desire. During his years of education, the University would call if an unusual animal was brought in for care. Among those early patients was a pair of Rhinoceros vipers with lungworm and a parrot with pneumonia.
“As a part of a basic vet’s education, you generally learn about dogs, cats, horses and cows,” said Tom. “Anything beyond that is out of the ordinary. I mean, how many chinchillas can come into UF on a weekly basis?” It’s hard to argue that point.
“In those days, if an interesting case came in, I’d be there in a heartbeat out of pure interest,” said Tom. He’d skip out of class for the experience, and would help the vets in any way he could, gaining valuable skills in the process.
After graduating in 1981 from UF with its second graduating class ever, Tom relocated to Lake Wales in 1982 to join the practice with which he is still associated today. Schotman, along with four other vets and a host of veterinary technicians and other staff, provides care to any creature who needs it; some of which are just plain “different.” He initially expected more of a “mixed” practice, anticipating that the majority of the work would include dogs and cats along with local livestock, but there was much more to come.
While they don’t teach much about this in college, one of Schotman’s first experiences with caring for exotics involved the elephants at Circus World, an attraction born in the mid-1970s near Davenport.
“I got a call for a health certificate for some ponies,” said Tom. “Then the guy who took care of the elephants called for me to come out. We learned a lot from each other. We started with 5 pregnant females, and they produced more captive-born offspring than any other facility in the country at the time,” said Tom. At the time that Circus World closed in 1986, there were 28 elephants in his care.
Schotman has worked a lot with cattle in the Lake Wales area and beyond and certainly sees his share of cats and dogs. When the phone rings with questions about more unusual species, it’s likely that “Doc Tom,” as he is locally known, will be summoned. A short list of some of the animals with which he’s worked include (and get ready… it’s not very short) mammals like lions, tigers. llamas, alpacas, camels, goats, rodents, prairie dogs, hedgehogs, rabbits, skunks (yes, and preferably descented), wallabies, kangaroos, kinkajous and sugar gliders; reptiles like iguanas, bearded dragons, water dragons, tegus, geckos; and a variety of snakes including ball pythons and boas. (Doc Tom doesn’t treat venomous ones.) You never know what kinds of pets the neighbors may own.
Some of the more unusual wildlife in the area also make it to the veterinary hospital. Turtles, squirrels and raccoons are steady visitors; and local wildlife officers have been known to bring in protected wildlife for treatment after injury, such as hawks, bald eagles and owls. There’s no question that Doc Tom has chosen a life of variety.
Over the past thirty years of treating sick and injured animals of all kinds, injury has not escaped him. Schotman has “been bitten plenty of times, to no avail,” said Tom – who still has all his fingers and toes. He’s been kicked pretty severely by horses with no permanent injury, save for a torn meniscus. “The cat scratches sting,” said Tom.
Doc Tom is not only a well-established vet with a wordof-mouth following and decades of experience, but he also gives his knowledge freely. He teaches at H.E.A.R.T. Missionary Training Institute (Hunger Education and Resources Training), preparing people to serve effectively in developing areas by teaching small animal husbandry since 2004.
What does he like best about his career choice and the unique path that he’s chosen? “I love the variety and the challenge that comes with each day,” said Tom. “I’ve treated a lot of species that aren’t in the books, and worked out of the box quite a bit. My philosophy is that the kid that comes in with his pet mouse has a right to see a vet that can help.”
Tom sums up his career best: “You never know what’s coming in the door.” Let’s not forget, though, that some patients can’t even fit in the door. Meet you out back. For information about Dr. Schotman and Lake Wales Veterinary Hospital, call 863-676-1451 or visit www.lakewalesvets.com