My Summer with the Wildlife Health Program

For the summer of 2017, I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Elizabeth Bunting of New York State’s Wildlife Health Program (WHP). Dr. Bunting is based out of Cornell’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC) and works in conjunction with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The goal of the Wildlife Health Program is “to safeguard the long-term health of the wildlife populations of New York”. This is accomplished through disease surveillance, research, and data analysis. My work, as a research assistant, was varied and fulfilling.

About two-thirds of my time were spent at the AHDC in an assistant capacity. Dr. Bunting would have questions pop up, and I would comb the literature trying to find answers for her. Some examples of the types of issues I looked into were: life cycle, vectors, and diagnostics of acanthocephalans (thorny headed worms) that affect passerines (songbirds); distemper virus in raccoons and vaccine protocols for wildlife rehabilitators; and the proper antibiotics to use, and at what dosage, to treat hellbender salamanders suffering from infections due to surgical complications. While at the AHDC, I got to perform several necropsies on wildlife including a juvenile black bear, an adult white tailed doe, and several white tail fawns. I also continued work on a project involving muskrat pelts that I started while working with Dr. Bunting over the winter break. This included giving a presentation in a DEC furbearer meeting on the work I had been doing and the results we had at that point. In my down time, I also did routine office work, including data entry.

Now on to the really fun stuff! Dr. Bunting was very generous in letting me spend about one-third of my time out in the field. She and Dr. Krysten Schuler of the WHP got me in contact with several wildlife biologists, technicians, and graduate students who I was able to accompany on various projects around the state. I spent the first two weeks of the summer assisting on a white tail deer fawn survival study. A graduate student had placed vaginal implant transmitters (VIT) in about 20 does which we would monitor through radio telemetry every few hours. When the doe gave birth, the VIT would fall out and change its signal, alerting us that fawns were on the ground. We would go in, and take measurements of the fawns, collect blood, hair, and saliva samples, and place radio collars on the fawns.

I also got to assist with two monitoring studies of both of New York’s venomous snakes, timber rattlesnakes and massasauga rattlesnakes. Both studies involved locating the snakes, taking measurements, and checking for microchips on previously captured snakes, or implanting microchips in newly captured snakes. The goal of both studies was to monitor the health and population numbers of the snakes to ensure that they are at sustainable levels in the state. I was also present at Cornell’s Janet Swanson Wildlife Health Center to witness the surgical implantation of a radio-telemetry tracker into a timber rattlesnake.

Some of my favorite work of the summer involved Hellbender salamanders. Hellbender numbers have been declining in the state, so several years ago several egg masses were hatched in captivity to be released into the wild to supplement the population. Unfortunately, these released animals were dying in the wild due to a fungal infection called chytridiomycosis. Vaccine trials have been performed in the past with inconclusive results. This past year the last 20 salamanders from one egg mass from the Buffalo Zoo were brought to Cornell for a vaccine and release protocol trial. All of the salamanders had telemetry trackers implanted surgically. I was able to assist in anesthetizing and recovering many of the salamanders from surgery. Later in the summer, I was with the group that released the salamanders into streams in the wild. Half of the animals were released into cages for the summer, while the other half were released nearby in the streams. I made several trips back out to help monitor the salamanders and catch them to swab for fungal cultures. I also had the chance to help the DEC on a wild hellbender survey late in the summer.

I got to assist with a few other cool projects over the summer. One involved accompanying trained dog teams in the Adirondacks collecting moose scat for a moose population estimate study. Another involved monitoring bat numbers at known summer roost sites. I was able to spend a day banding Canada geese with the DEC. I also went out collecting black bear hair from various research sites.

My summer with the Wildlife Health Program was a great experience. I learned that being a wildlife veterinarian doesn’t just involve field work and hands-on animal experience. Research, surveillance, and relying on biologists out in the field is a huge component of being a state wildlife veterinarian. Much time is spent in the office but it is important work and is crucial to the job. That being said, my hands-on experiences over the course of the summer were fantastic. I don’t know too many people that can say that they personally handled 2 types of rattlesnakes, a threatened amphibian species, and baby deer all in a couple of months. My summer experience makes me excited for a possible future as a wildlife veterinarian. I would like to thank Dr. Beth Bunting very much for the opportunity to work with and learn from her. I would also like to thank Dr. Krysten Schuler, Nikki, Nick, Richalice, and Jennifer from the Wildlife Health Program for being so great to me over my time with them. I would also like to thank Dr. Hermanson, Dr. Buckles and the various graduate students, wildlife biologists, and wildlife technicians that allowed me to join them out in the field.


Bryan Clifford is a veterinary student at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in the Class of 2020. Bryan is also a student technician at the Janet Swanson Wildlife Health Center. He is interested in pursuing a career working with free-ranging wildlife and wildlife rehabilitation.

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