Chambana Dad to Know: Dr. Matt Allender

Ever wondered who tends to the large animals at the zoo when they are under the weather? A zoo and wildlife veterinarian, of course. Meet Dr. Matt Allender, who describes himself as a “true townie,” having attended kindergarten through vet school in Champaign.  So when that tiger has a tummy ache or the chimp is feeling less than chipper, Allender is on call, all the while being a world-class animal researcher and professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. In 2010, he became only the fourth Diplomate of American College of Zoological Medicine in Illinois, which indicates a board-certified zoo and wildlife veterinarian. Married to his high school sweetheart, the couple has two children, a 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, and the family lives in Monticello.
See why we think Dr. Matt Allender is a Chambana Dad to Know. Matt Allender Champaign Urbana dad

Q: It is many kids’ dream to work with large animals – how did you decide to become a zoo veterinarian?

I was one of those kids that wanted to be a veterinarian all my life. But, my desire to become a zoo veterinarian didn’t start until undergrad (here at UI) when I did a keeper internship at the Brookfield Zoo. Since that point, I made it a point to direct all of my efforts to becoming a good veterinarian followed closely by becoming a good zoo/wildlife veterinarian.

Q: Working with large, wild animals can be dangerous. What safety measures do you take when treating them?

Nearly half of my job is anesthesia. If I do my job well, the tiger won’t wake up and we are all safe! The best way to be safe is to prepare well before any procedure and rely on experienced individuals that I am working with. I don’t start a procedure until I can protect myself and those around me. In all, it requires lots of training and lots of learning.

Q: How did you get involved researching box turtles, and why is it important to study them?

I always had an interest in reptiles, and box turtles seemed to be at the right place at the right time in my life. I had a box turtle case as a senior veterinary student that was the first-ever recorded case of an emerging infectious disease in the state of Tennessee. That led to more than just a passing interest, which I was fortunate to investigate further when I had the opportunity to return to Tennessee for my residency. Then, during the residency, I was introduced to John Byrd and John Rucker, two individuals that share my mission of “Saving the world, one box turtle at a time”. Currently, we are in the 6th year of monitoring the health of a box turtle population in Oak Ridge, Tenn., making to the largest long-term box turtle health study ever. Pretty great way to spend 12 days a year – following the turtle dogs find box turtles in the east Tennessee forest!

Q: What do your kids think of your unique job?

My kids think the work is pretty cool. But, I joke that my son (7 years old now, and 18 months old when I started as a zoo veterinarian) thinks that a dog is more exciting than a red panda. He just figured that all kids got to go with their dad behind the scenes at the zoo and pet a red panda or feed an elephant. However, now that he is older, he has begun to appreciate the “coolness”. My daughter (2 years old) is just getting into the phase of being excited about things. This week we went to an aquarium, zoo, and nature center – and at each place it took several minutes to pull her away from the turtles – a word that she learned early and says quite clearly and frequently!

Q: What does fatherhood mean to you?

Being a father is the most important job that I have ever had. People tell you that your life changes when you have kids, but no one can adequately explain the feeling that you think about everyday. It is a constant state of amazement, pride, worry, confusion, and love all at the same time. I have enjoyed personal successes, but I never have felt so happy as when I see one of my kids succeed in something that they didn’t even know they could, the confidence that they show in themselves is all I need.

Q: What does your ideal family day look like?

An ideal day would include a hike, a cookout, and the hope of a nap. But, anyday that I get to spend with the family and don’t have to work is all I need.

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