An alum solves animal health mysteries. By Darrach Dolan

Who do you call when your kangaroo has a urinary tract stone, or your moray eel has an ocular lesion? Try Dr. Amanda Ardente ’02, a veterinarian with a nose for solving difficult cases.

Ardente joked that she has “been in school forever.” Her accumulation of degrees attests to that: a bachelor of science in veterinary medical technology from Wilson, a doctor of veterinary medicine from the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), and a doctorate in animal nutrition from the University of Florida (UF).

However, in 2017 she said goodbye to almost 19 years of full-time schooling and opened her own business — Ardente Veterinary Nutrition LLC. It was a leap into the unknown because exotic animal nutrition is a narrow and specialized field, and she wasn’t sure there was a market for her skills and knowledge. In fact, as far as she knows, she is only one of two veterinarians who specialize in exotic animal nutrition in the United States. Her leap appears to have been a wise one. Despite even the interruptions of a global pandemic, which temporarily closed many zoos and animal parks, her business is off to a flying start. Clients include zoos and animal parks across the country and as far away as the S.E.A. Aquarium in Singapore.

MORE THAN A PIT STOP AT WILSON

Ardente’s journey into the world of exotic animals began with “a geographical stop at Wilson College.” She was touring several prospective colleges and chose to visit Wilson only because it made a convenient stopping point on her drive home. “I’ll never forget when I got there,” she said. “They had my name on the board at admissions. And the guy that met me was super friendly. It was just very personal. Wilson was the last college on my list and the first college that considered me and thought of me as someone who was seriously considering this as my next stop.” She had found her home away from home. “I decided, I’m done; this is the place for me.”

For someone who would go on to spend almost two decades studying, Ardente didn’t find Wilson classes the piece of cake she had expected. “When things come easy to you in high school, you expect them to continue to come easy,” she said. When she didn’t get the grades she had assumed she would, she butted heads with her professors and even accused some of making their subjects unnecessarily difficult. With hindsight, she realized that the professors were teaching her how to study, how to process and apply knowledge, and how to be an engaged and active learner. She credits those professors whose rigor, in combination with their availability and encouragement, for helping her become a successful and life-long learner.

Not only did she flourish as a student, but she describes her transformation at the College as a metamorphosis. “In high school, I was popular but also a kind of follower. At Wilson, I had to figure out my own place because I didn’t have my buddies with me. That was challenging and scary and eventually empowering.”

WILSON’S HONOR PRINCIPLE IN ACTION

“The interpersonal stuff I learned at Wilson has helped me in my career and get to where I am today,” she said. In her first year, an ugly incident taught her an important lesson. Another student copied her assignment and submitted it as her own work. When the professor noticed the similarity between the two submissions, she gave them both failing grades. Ardente faced a dilemma: she didn’t want the grade on her record, yet she didn’t want to be a tattletale. She knew that in a small college everyone would know she was calling another student out and feared some students may turn against her. Nonetheless, she went ahead and took her case to the honor council and invoked the honor principle. “That was one thing that also impressed me about the College — having the honor system and learning what that meant and valuing that process.” The council agreed with Ardente and she was vindicated. “It taught me that you have to own your stuff, that you are held accountable for your actions in good and bad ways, and that stuff can follow you. So, you learn to make choices wisely.”

After that incident, Ardente “gravitated towards leadership roles, became an RA, and got involved in student government.” She would become the first first-year student in Wilson history to become a voting member of the Wilson College Government Association when she was elected Academic Affairs Chair.

TURTLES AND BONEY FISH

If her choice of Wilson was a geographical stroke of good luck, her choice of animal nutrition was equally fortuitous and unplanned. After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Wilson, she spent two years working as a veterinary technician in North Carolina. Once she had established residency in that state and qualified for resident tuition rates, she enrolled in North Carolina College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) to pursue her dream of becoming a veterinarian. In her fourth year, she took a nutrition course. It wasn’t a popular specialty, and she thought it “boring and wasn’t a fan.” Then she did a short rotation at a sea turtle hospital as part of her clinical year. This chance rotation profoundly changed her opinion of nutrition and her professional trajectory.

At the hospital, where they rescued and rehabilitated sea turtles, some turtles were noticeably slower to recover from injury or illness than others. Ardente’s mentor wanted to know why and asked the CVM students to try and figure it out. They did blood work and other tests. They came up with hypotheses and tested them. Unfortunately, by the time her rotation ended, they hadn’t found the solution. However, Ardente was hooked on solving the mystery and continued to follow the research.

Eventually, researchers found the answer. “It turned out to be a diet issue,” Ardente said. “It came down to the way that the food was being prepped by the volunteers — the bones were being filleted out, and it was a calcium phosphorous imbalance.” When sea turtles are juveniles, they are mainly carnivorous before becoming primarily vegetarian as adults. Because the rescued juveniles weren’t getting enough calcium from fish bones, they weren’t recovering as quickly as they should have been. “That was striking to me,” Ardente explained. “I realized diet was a way that I could make a difference, that it was so simple, but it makes a huge impact on the health and healing of this animal.”

So began her journey into exotic animal nutrition.

BUTTERFLY AND EEL DIETICIAN

After graduating as a veterinarian, Ardente went to the University of Florida (UF) to pursue a doctorate in animal nutrition. “I wanted to experience as much variation as possible,” she said. “So, I worked on developing diets for endangered butterflies, stingrays, moray eels, and elephants,” to name a few of the species she has worked with.

The Atala butterfly is a colorful species native to southern Florida and parts
of the Caribbean. They are dependent on the coontie palm for nutrition. Unfortunately, with habitat loss and fragmentation of tracts of coontie palms, they are listed as endangered in Florida. Ardente worked with a conservation program trying to breed the butterflies in captivity for release into the wild. The program was limited to breeding the butterflies only when they had fresh coontie palm to feed the caterpillars. Ardente developed a gel from the plant that they could provide all year round and helped increase the number of caterpillars they could raise to adult butterflies and release. The program not only releases butterflies but is working to improve their habitat and plant more coontie palms in their natural range.

Green moray eels kept in aquariums are prone to develop ocular lesions. Ardente was asked to investigate if nutrition could be the culprit. She examined the diets and other conditions across several aquariums — large aquariums are complex biomes with numerous factors affecting the health of the inhabitants, including temperature, salinity, ph, lighting, number and type of species, and even size of the tanks. After accounting for all these factors, she discovered eels kept on a particular diet fared better than others and is working with aquariums to implement an optimal diet for their eels.

KIDNEY STONES AND POOP

Ardente’s thesis involved identifying the causes of kidney stones in dolphins. She chose this topic because kidney stones are most often linked to diet, and they have become an issue for dolphins in human care. Solving the mystery would benefit the animals directly and improve their lives and health. After studying the dolphins at several different facilities, she suspects the problem comes from the type of fish dolphins in human care eat. Ardente postulates that the fish they are fed are mostly cold water fish and less boney and toothy than the ones they would eat if foraging for themselves. As with the sea turtles that inspired her to enter the field of nutrition, she believes a calcium imbalance is at the heart of the problem. She has written papers on this subject and hopes to publish more in the near future.

Although her focus was on dolphins, she worked on the dietary needs of multiple species while pursuing her doctorate. “The nutrition world is not all glamour,” she said. “There’s a lot of gathering and looking at and analyzing poop to see how things are being absorbed. One of the things I was looking at was vitamin E supplementation in rhinoceros. Part of knowing how much to give is knowing how much they are excreting. So there was a time where I was collecting rhino poop and freeze-drying balls of it for weeks on end at six a.m. every morning then sending it off for vitamin E analysis.”

A BUSINESS OWNER

When Ardente took the leap into the world outside academia and founded her nutrition consultation business, she had one client — an animal supplement company. She began developing supplements for them, but her job morphed into doing a lot more, including guiding its supplements through regulatory approval.

Since then, she has worked with many different zoos and parks and on numerous species. She worked with dolphins at Singapore’s Resorts World at Sentosa to improve their diets. She has developed diets for species new to a zoo and whose keepers may not be familiar with their needs and for species that are not doing well on their current diets. From porcupines to penguins, Ardente figures out the healthiest diet for her animal clients.

Recently, a zoo called for her help with kangaroos that were suffering from stones in the urinary tract (Ardente joked that stones are not her only specialty). The kangaroos appeared
to be eating a regular diet and one that didn’t cause stones at other facilities. “It’s like being a detective,” she said. “You’re asking the questions and trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and figure out why something is occurring.” The solution was staring the keepers in the face. “It turned out to be a soil issue. There was limestone rock placed in the exhibit, and it turned out — limestone is calcium carbonate — when it rained, it washed down under the browse vegetation the kangaroos were eating. The plants were sucking up all that calcium carbonate, and the kangaroos were eating this calcium-rich vegetation. And they developed stones as a consequence of that!”

To learn more about her company, you can visit her website at ardentevetnutrition.com.

SUPPORT OF HER FAMILY

Ardente wanted to mention how she couldn’t have done what she’s done alone and that it’s particularly difficult for a young woman and mother to set up her own business. “Starting any business is a risk and a financial burden,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to have a partner who supports my professional goals and who had a career that could support us as we were getting off the ground.”

She and Andrew Smith, her husband, met while both were studying to become veterinarians at CVM. At first, they were “anatomy buddies” rather than romantic partners. They weren’t even study buddies because they had very different learning styles and couldn’t work together. However, in their fourth year, their friendship blossomed into romance. Ardente and Smith, an equine veterinarian, now have two children, Grady and Evelyn, and Fancy, a German shorthaired pointer.

Ardente looks forward to the next dietary mystery she will investigate and hopes to continue contributing to animal welfare through her nose for dietary detective work.

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