The Bioethics of Wildlife Intervention

A young springbok prancing in the air, a behavior known as “pronking.” Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A one-day-old springbok rises on his gangly legs — the shriveled umbilical cord still dangling from his ventrum — and begins to boing around his new surroundings. There is plenty to discover in the vast African bushveld, which he proceeds to do with reckless abandon.

Suddenly, a group of jackals saunters from behind an acacia tree and one of them seizes the “bokkie” by the neck. Within seconds, a game reserve employee dashes out of his safari vehicle to shoo away the jackals, gingerly picks up the injured springbok, and races to the wildlife clinic. Thankfully, no puncture wounds are detected, only bruising — the bokkie is later returned to the original site. The veterinarian waits from afar, hoping the youngster will rejoin his springbok herd.

Adult male sable antelope (Hippotragus niger). Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

A month later, an adult male sable is seen hobbling on three legs due to a severe hoof infection. Darting supplies and medications are loaded onto a helicopter, from which the sable is safely anesthetized. After sedation is achieved, the hoof is examined and subsequently treated with saline flush and antibiotics. A reversal drug is then injected into the thigh muscle, upon which personnel are instructed to vacate the premises expediently. Meanwhile, the veterinarian remains on-site to verify the antelope’s full recovery.

Clearly, there is never a dull day in wildlife medicine. As an aspiring wildlife veterinarian who plans to pursue conservation medicine, I have frequently encountered this bioethical issue in both my academic studies and fieldwork. The aforementioned circumstances were experiences I witnessed during my summer in Namibia, where I was conducting research and shadowing the resident veterinarian on a wildlife reserve. Although these individual scenarios involved many factors worth analyzing, the veterinarian plays a prominent role in each situation, often deferred to for coordinating the remedial actions taken and their outcomes.

The aftermath of the above scenarios: the sable gradually improved post-treatment, whereas the springbokkie was never seen again — and thus, presumed dead.

That begs the question: Was it right for the employee to painstakingly pluck the baby springbok from his herd after being attacked by jackals? Were his actions compassionate or officious? Although the infant was promptly returned, it was possible the bokkie was rejected from his herd since the human handling had now covered him in foreign scent. After failing to be adopted back into the group, he was left vulnerable to the pesky jackals once more.

As health care professionals, veterinarians are uniquely positioned to address complex ethical issues involving human, animal, and ecosystem health — a concept aptly known as “One Health.” This initiative governs the core of conservation medicine and reflects the interrelationship and transdisciplinary approach needed to ultimately ensure the wellbeing of all.

The history of human-wildlife relations has experienced some challenges and backlash, but handling these interactions involves balancing valid concerns, prioritizing values, and adopting a hybrid perspective. We regularly wrestle with whether our actions are restorative or destructive, and reflect on a track record of gratifying wins and unsavory losses to learn from. Given our substantial roles in the fate of conservation, it is imperative to debate the significance of interventional efforts and whether they can be rationalized.

While the veterinary profession certainly paints a noble picture of treating injured and sick animals, conducting mass rescues, and mitigating human-wildlife conflict, the interventional aspect entailed in all these tasks suggest, to some, the controversial idea of “playing God.” Are the measures taken regarded as dutiful obligation or self-righteous interference?

On a more abstract level, such apotheosis is inevitable for any professional practicing contemporary medicine. However, the hubris of playing God is arguably heavier for veterinarians since more stakeholders fall within their jurisdiction. As an arbiter for animals, humans, and the environment, veterinarians are constantly confronted with clinical decisions involving life and death and must calculate the associated risks and benefits for multiple constituents. Tampering with the system may result in inadvertent consequences. Conversely, just because resources are available does not necessarily mean they should be used.

Though many have applauded scientific achievements such as GMOs, assisted reproductive technologies, and instrumental surveillance, others have perceived these fields as an exercise of human dominance. The idea of wildlife intervention engenders similarly conflicting sentiments. When physicians and scientists employ these seemingly “unnatural” methods, public fear arises around their potential negative — albeit unintended — consequences. Such discomfort may reflect an underlying mistrust of science and technology in favor of a powerfully unpredictable force of nature as the ultimate source of authority. When working on a free-ranging wildlife reserve that actively promotes conservation, there are various instances in which human intervention is utilized, sparking discussion of the decision-making principles that are applied and the degree of success achieved.

On one hand, the “Circle of Life” argument is commonly cited against wildlife intervention. Such critics support a laissez-faire policy that enables Mother Nature to take her course. Any meddling on the veterinarian’s part would thereby violate this principle. Despite one’s desire to aid the patient and provide necessary care for its survival, that may interfere with the operative principle of natural selection. In retrospect, with the bokkie case, a passive approach may have been best. Simply put, there are predator species and prey species; animals must eat to survive, and we cannot disrupt this instinct.

However, the “Circle of Life” argument fails to extend to veterinary work conducted with domestic pets — namely, preventative medicine. For example, routine vaccination protocols that keep our companion animals healthy are also employed in wild animals to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. If an emerging disease threatens an epidemiological crisis — especially if the pathogen is zoonotic, i.e. can be transmitted between animals and people — this must be addressed on a population level to prevent a mass mortality event.

Generally, the guideline regarding wildlife intervention is to act when the problem presented is due to human impact. Whether it’s gunshot wounds, lead toxicity, or hit-by-car cases, we are obligated to treat accordingly. We bear a responsibility to rectify anthropogenic consequences wrought on wildlife, simply because we caused them. Moreover, other factors warrant intervention, particularly if there is monetary value attached to a certain animal or species in need of saving. In fact, this factor supported the decision to intervene with the adult sable, who was one of three males on the entire reserve. For the purposes of his health and tourism value, treating this sable was deemed permissible.

As stewards and advocates of nature, we understand the precautionary principle of playing God, its inextricable social and ethical implications, and the requisite, evidence-based risk management of any impending decisions. While there is no absolutism with these difficult situations and exceptions can occasionally be made, moral reflection, consideration of all stakeholders, and development of our own self-knowledge may help us navigate this complex terrain.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on Mongabay on October 8, 2018.


Elvina Yau, class of 2020, is a veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

The Cheetah Chronicles: The Next Generation

“Teacher! Teacher!” a bundle of children would exclaim as I pedaled along the fence of the schoolyard and parked my bicycle at the front gate. These high-pitched utterances would engender a variety of sentiments on my part: melting my heart to be greeted so warmly every morning, crawling over to read a picture book with them in a pillow fort, clapping with joy at their mastery of multiplication tables, or closing my eyes in dread over the spilled juice on the classroom carpet.

While the primary purpose of my summer placement in Namibia was to conduct intensive research on cheetah nutrition to enhance my clinical understanding of wildlife species, it was a tremendous honor to collaborate with the AfriCat Foundation to rewardingly extend that knowledge through educational outreach. AfriCat’s teaching philosophy is based upon the following quote from Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will only conserve what we love, we will only love what we understand, and we will only understand what we are taught.” The program itself aims to increase the students’ awareness of environmental issues, develop a sense of agency regarding their roles and the sustainable living practices they can engage in, and empower them to harness their strengths and passions to become ambassadors for wildlife.

Naturally, lessons were catered to the age group of the students. With kindergarteners, we created an arts & crafts activity to illustrate diversity in nature. Using a zebra as our teaching model and emphasizing the fact that no two individuals share the same stripes, we highlighted the beauty of difference and the importance of embracing and preserving that aspect in both the animal and human kingdoms. With middle schoolers, we would take the students out on nature walks and teach them about the bushman way of life. Bushmen are members of the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups that were regarded as the first inhabitants of various Southern African countries, including Namibia. I was amazed when learning about their sheer survival ingenuity, their profound respect for animals, and the deep spirituality that connected them with nature. Whether it was hollowing out an ostrich egg and repurposing it as a water flask, fashioning the fibers of the Sansevieria plant into a rope with exceptional tensile strength, or igniting a fire purely from dry grass and friction, the Bushman culture and its traditions are actively preserved by the Namibian people. Despite increasing modernization of society, the Bushman values, rich history, and practices continue to be shared with others.

With high school and university students, we would integrate more scientific concepts into the lesson plans and explain the evolutionary adaptations of animals we would spot on a safari drive. We often had comparative discussions between the big cat species and how their anatomical differences contributed to their distinct survival strategies. For example, the characteristic black tear tracks that run down every cheetah’s face is present in order to reduce the amount of light that gets reflected into their eyes. This is to facilitate their hunting endeavors, since cheetahs search for prey during the day. On the other hand, leopards have a noticeably bulkier skull due to the attachments of massive muscles of mastication. While cheetahs are built for speed, leopards rely on stealth and incredible bite force to strike their prey.

Though days were long and filled with instruction, there were definitely more laid-back, reflective moments as well. We would watch the brilliant sunset over a placid dam, roast marshmallows over a crackling campfire, and lie underneath the African night sky to identify constellations as our bodies rested gently in the sand. On some evenings, we would convene for dinner and do a traditional “braai,” a social barbeque feast where everyone gathered around a firepit to grill sausage and game meat as the Milky Way glowed above.

The educational outreach aspect was an invaluable part of my experience in Africa, as I truly enjoyed immersing in the local Namibian culture and building relationships with children of all ages, many of whom were inspired to pursue careers in conservation. Through such education and awareness in the Namibian youth, we ultimately hope to build a future generation that can one day competently manage the carnivore populations in Namibia, devise practical solutions to human-wildlife conflict, and balance the needs of endangered species with the economic livelihood of farming communities. Although tourism generates an appreciable amount of revenue to fund conservation projects, big cat populations are still threatened by shootings due to farmland encroachment, a response that mainly stems from a lack of education about how both parties can coexist peacefully. By inspiring young students, several of whose families actually own farms, to see the value of wildlife and ignite their passions for conservation, we are addressing the imperative that saving these carnivore species undoubtedly requires investing in the youth of Africa.


This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on September 3, 2018.


Elvina Yau, class of 2020, is a veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

The Cheetah Chronicles: Boma or Bust

“This is a dangerous operation. Are you prepared for death?”

“Yes,” I nod foolishly.

The game manager delivered the signal on his walkie-talkie, and within moments I heard a helicopter approaching. I walked past a tall, tarp curtain, gingerly stepping over a series of taut ropes, and assumed my designated position. I concealed myself within the folds of the curtain, keeping part of my head exposed so I could still surveil the landscape, and awaited further instructions. Minutes later, a group of men were shouting and running frantically while tugging on the ropes, dragging one side of the curtain along the zipline. The voices quickly stopped, and the manager beckoned me to come forward, motioning to hide with him behind a tree. The helicopter suddenly arrived and started to descend. When it hovered directly above, it enshrouded us in a sandstorm cloud in which our key senses were temporarily disabled by the chalky dust and deafening whirr of the chopper blades. Once everything cleared, a female oryx appeared, looking less than thrilled. My next move was critical—it determined the success of the operation and my own survival.

There is never a dull day in the field of wildlife medicine. One of our principal duties consists of mastering the art and science of animal capture. Such tasks are necessary in order to relocate certain species for management purposes, exchange animals with other reserves or facilities, or temporarily isolate an animal in order to perform annual health exams or surgeries. Evidently, wild animals do not exhibit the same level of compliance one can achieve with domesticated pets. Veterinarians have various ways to conduct such captures; the choice of method depends largely on the type of animal being sought and what procedure is being performed. Chemical capture via darting is one of the more common techniques, in which remote drug delivery equipment is used to sedate an animal from a safe distance. However, an alternative and perhaps more adrenaline-packed method is the use of a boma.

A boma is a large enclosure assembled with four solid walls that is traditionally used for livestock. The boma technique is sometimes preferred since it does not require chemical immobilization of the animal involved. However, this aspect is only suitable if the situation does not entail an intricate procedure or warrant major animal safety concerns. Additionally, if mass capture is the task at hand, bomas will usually be employed since it is not feasible to dart and sedate numerous animals at once within a limited timeframe. Bomas exist in several styles, but the ones constructed in the Okonjima Nature Reserve in Namibia consisted of tarp curtains strewn along a square wired perimeter. Some bomas can even be designed to attach to chutes, so as animals are guided into the boma, they continue to shuffle through the chute, from which they can load directly onto a livestock trailer. They can then be safely transported offsite without the added complications of having to sedate them.

After a boma is erected, game managers must then condition the resident animals—mainly hoofstock—to enter the boma. By leaving the curtain open and placing feed troughs inside the boma, the animals grow more familiar with entering this intriguing structure to eat. Once the desired animal is located within the boma, the curtain is slid closed and the individual is passively “captured.” The boma operation at Okonjima, which relied on coordination between air pilots and a grounds team, utilized a helicopter in order to obtain an aerial whereabouts of the desired animals, then goad them into the boma from there. Some animals can be particularly savvy and seem to possess an uncanny ability to intuit what you are trying to coax them into; they either persistently stay just outside the perimeter or start moving in the opposite direction.

Accordingly, any boma operation entails the utmost strategic planning, precise timing, and quick reactivity. Even details boiling down to one’s outfit must be carefully considered. To avoid attracting the wariness of especially astute animals, all staff must wear colors that blend in with the surrounding terrain—hence, your classic tan/khaki safari color scheme.

As it was wintertime at Okonjima and we were undergoing a drought period, we realized grass was becoming scarce and wanted to relocate several animals to a different section of the reserve. Another rationale for conducting this high-stakes boma procedure was to address the overgrazing that had occurred. While browser animals (e.g. giraffe, oryx) were content to munch on high-growing vegetation like leaves and tree bark, the more numerous grazers (e.g. zebra, kudu) populating the area had completely foraged the limited grass available. Shifting a proportion of these browsers and especially grazers to a different, unused patch of land would not only give them access to a more abundant food supply, but also enable the grass to regrow at the original site.

After briefly corralling the surly oryx and getting notified that all curtains had been slid closed, our next task was simply to get out of the enclosure. I then calmly and quickly sneaked past the curtains to escape an interior now teeming with rambunctious hoofstock, then continued to run a couple meters further before I finally relaxed. The reason behind my exit strategy: a still-fuming oryx could continue to charge at the barrier with its famously long, straight horns and impale an unsuspecting person leaning on the other side.


This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on September 2, 2018.


Elvina Yau, class of 2020, is a veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

The Cheetah Chronicles: An Introduction

Greetings from Otjiwarongo, Namibia! My name is Elvina Yau and I am a rising 3rd year veterinary student at Cornell. My professional interests are quite varied, as I enjoy Small Animal Medicine, practice ownership, and wildlife conservation. Although companion animals and wildlife seem like disparate fields, there are pragmatic overlaps between the two disciplines that nonetheless require the advocacy of any aspiring veterinarian. I first participated in the Expanding Horizons program last summer, a formative experience studying Asian elephant welfare in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In order to further increase my exposure to wildlife species and international veterinary medicine, I am currently pursuing my second Expanding Horizons opportunity here in Namibia, Africa.

This summer, I have partnered with the AfriCat Foundation to conduct research on cheetah nutrition. Located on the Okonjima Nature Reserve, AfriCat is a non-profit organization established in 1993 whose mission is to promote the long-term conservation of large carnivores through education and research. According to the IUCN Red List, cheetahs are listed as Vulnerable. Namibia has the largest global population of roughly 2000 wild cheetahs, 90% of which can be found on livestock and game farms throughout the country. Since felids are predators that require large habitats and the majority of cheetahs live on commercial farmland, human-wildlife conflict often arises due to overgrazing from cheetahs and retaliatory killing by farmers. Clearly, transboundary conservation initiatives are needed to improve tolerance and livestock management at the human-wildlife interface, reform regional policy and legislation, and increase education at all levels of society in order to sustain a viable population of cheetahs.

My project specifically investigates the clinical, metabolic, and behavioral effects of glycine supplementation in cheetahs. The resident cheetahs at AfriCat are rescued from commercial farmland across Namibia, and are housed in spacious enclosures of 12-50 acres. Nutritional disease—namely glycine deficiency—is a prevalent health concern seen in captive and semi-free ranging cheetahs. Normally, cheetahs in the wild have a high dietary intake of glycine obtained through consumption of the carcass components of their prey, which supply rich sources of this amino acid. Glycine is a precursor for several important biomolecules such as DNA, creatine, bile acids, and glutathione (a major intracellular antioxidant). Glycine also plays a critical role in anti-inflammatory responses, neurological function, detoxification of organic acids, and maintainance of connective tissue integrity.

Although cheetahs can synthesize glycine from other amino acids like serine or threonine, this biochemical pathway is inefficient, and endogenous synthesis of glycine does not fully meet metabolic demand. While a mild insufficiency is tolerable, a chronic deficiency can be profoundly detrimental to the animal’s growth, immune response, and metabolism. Considering glycine’s properties and therapeutic benefits, our study seeks to supplement an appropriate glycine dose to the cheetahs’ diets to assess whether it is clinically promising towards their health and well-being.

Feeding trials will be conducted with sub-adult cheetahs by adding a glycine powder supplement to their standard diet for 4 weeks. Before the trial commences, each cheetah will be anesthetized to collect baseline data and samples (e.g. urine, blood). Hematology, serum chemistry panels, and urinalysis will be conducted on each cat to measure metabolites and physiological parameters like electrolytes and cortisol levels. Furthermore, abdominal ultrasounds will be performed and flexible endoscopes will be used in order to obtain gastric biopsies from each cheetah. After the 4-week trial, the cheetahs will again be anesthetized and endoscoped to collect another round of biological samples so we can compare pre- and post-glycine data. During the study, the cheetahs will also have their activity levels monitored to assess for any changes in behavior or sleep patterns. Since glycine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, a potential side effect of dietary supplementation could be increased drowsiness.

Our dietary trials can thus illuminate the precise metabolic profile of cheetahs and test whether a glycine powder supplement helps improve the pathological conditions associated with glycine deficiency. By providing further insight into this unique and less understood aspect of carnivore health, our goal is to advance understanding of the metabolic alterations associated with malnutrition and intestinal dysbiosis, and hopefully develop a safe, inexpensive form of nutritional intervention.

Through Expanding Horizons, I am spending eight weeks in Namibia, where I can intimately experience the vibrant fauna and flora of the Okonjima Reserve. With an exciting and highly educational itinerary ahead of me, I will gain clinical perspective with big cat species in an international setting, and collaborate with esteemed professionals to learn how to better manage cheetahs in captivity and protect their population at large.

Veterinary care is essential in maintaining the health of cheetahs, while education of the global community is necessary to promote conservation efforts. In addition to my cheetah research this summer, I will be participating in AfriCat’s outreach initiatives by assisting with their Environmental Education Program. Working with local Namibian schoolchildren, we will be providing interactive lessons and activities to teach the young generation about carnivore conservation and the agro-ecosystem.

I look forward to embracing the new experiences and challenges that will accompany field research with cheetahs in Namibia this summer. Through my endeavors to improve the welfare of cheetahs and their conservation status, I am excited to dedicate my summer to impacting the lives of others as well as fulfilling my own.


Elvina Yau is a third-year veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

Check out Elvina’s personal blog at Elvina The Explorer!

Sea Turtles: An Overview

During high school, I went to the Florida Keys and visited The Turtle Hospital. There, I met the turtle with a syndrome named after it, Bubble Butt, and donated supplies to help them continue their mission. Florida’s coastline serves as nesting ground for 5 of the only 7 species of sea turtles in the world! Though sea turtles are not in our backyard here in Ithaca, NY, they are of concern when we venture to warmer weather during the brutal Northeast winters, as well as spring and summer breaks.

These are the seven species of sea turtles:

  • Green (Chelonia mydas): endangered
    • Herbivore: sea grass and algae (also sponges and jellyfish)
    • Worldwide in tropical seas
    • Diet turns their fat green
  • Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii): critically endangered, rarest sea turtle
    • Omnivore: crabs, lobster, jellyfish, vegetation
    • Primarily Gulf of Mexico, restricted to North America
    • Named after Richard Kemp; “arribada” nesting behavior all together in middle of day
  • Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea): vulnerable
    • Gelatinivore: jellyfish, cnidarians, tunicates
    • Worldwide in deeper oceans
    • Has a unique leathery shell with longitudinal ridges along its carapace (upper shell), which allows for deep diving
  • Loggerhead (Caretta caretta): threatened
    • Omnivore: crabs, lobster, conch, algae, sea grass
    • Worldwide in tropical and subtropical seas
    • Strongest jaw muscles
  • Hawksbilll (Eretmochelys imbricata): critically endangered
    • Omnivore: sponges, small invertebrates
    • Worldwide tropical seas near coral reefs
    • Harvested for “tortoise-shell” pattern in jewelry and decorations; bird-like beak
  • Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea): vulnerable
    • Omnivore: crabs, lobster, fish, jellyfish, vegetation, sponges
    • Pacific and lower Atlantic oceans
    • Olive green shell; greatest number of scutes (shell scales)
  • Flatback (Natator depressus): vulnerable
    • Omnivore: sea cucumbers, sea pens, soft corals, jellyfish, echinoderms, sea grass
    • Around Australia
    • Named for flatness of shell

Nesting habits and artificial light

A problem that has arisen with increasing development along beaches is the inability of mother sea turtles to find good nesting spots and hatchling sea turtles to orient themselves to the ocean via the reflection of the moon after hatching. Due to coastline lighting, mother sea turtles end up laying their eggs in less than ideal locations (including in the ocean!), and hatchlings are predated, or become dehydrated and die in their quest for the sea.

Common injuries and illness

Most of the injuries and illnesses suffered by sea turtles are due to human intervention in their habitat.

  • Boat hits: Like manatees, turtles can get hit by boat propellers in shallow and deep water when they come up for air.
    • Boat propellers can cut through turtle shell, and this can result in the turtle becoming more buoyant. This disorder is referred to as Bubble Butt Syndrome after one of The Turtle Hospital’s turtles suffering from such incident. Those with the condition cannot submerge without weights, but attached weights can fall off so the turtles become permanently captive.
  • Impactions: Plastic bags look like jellyfish, and turtles are opportunistic feeders like goats.
    • Plastic bags and other trash and pollutants cannot be digested and block the digestive track of sea turtles causing what is called an impaction. In the wild, they will eventually die of starvation due to this issue. Impacted turtles are treated with Metamucil, fiber, and vegetable oil to ease blockage, much like horses with similar conditions.
  • Entanglement: fishing line can wrap around appendages and cut off circulation, but can also have hooks attached
    • As turtles swim, they rotate their flippers in a circular fashion, so a fishing line can encircle their appendages and prevent blood flow, causing turtles to lose function and possibly limbs and drown as they are not able to swim to the surface to breathe.
    • Turtles can ingest fish hooks which can damage their digestive tracts. The hook can either be treated similar to an impaction, allowed to rust out, or removed surgically.
  • Cold stunning: just like when you get in the pool for the first time in the spring, but with more severe effects
    • When the water temperature dips below 10 degrees Celsius (or 50 degrees Fahrenheit), turtles can become cold stunned; they lose the ability to swim/dive and often float to the surface. Treatment involves slowly warming them in water at about 3 degrees Celsius per day up to 24 degrees Celsius.
  • Fibropapillomatosis: caused primarily by a herpesvirus
    • Fibropapillomatosis causes tumors to grow predominantly on the face and flippers, affecting their sight and ability to swim. Surgery is used to debulk these tumors, but there is no vaccine or cure. Some turtles become immune over a year in captivity, but tumors can recur and be internal, where they are not detectable.

How you can help!

These important measures protect and respect all animal life, not just sea turtles.

  • Follow signage that asks you to “stay off the beach” during turtle nesting and hatching season so as not to disturb these magnificent creatures.
  • Follow ordinances to modify light fixtures and turn off outside lights, especially during nights of the nesting season if you live on the coast.
  • Clean up after yourself; don’t leave trash on the beach or anywhere where it could reach the sea.
  • Follow signage to stop boat propellers when in shallow water and where anchoring is permissible.
  • If you fish, be sure to gather your fishing line and dispose of it properly as it takes hundreds of years to degrade. If you see loose fishing line, be a good citizen and dispose of it in appropriate receptacles.


Lauren Jacobs is a third year Cornell veterinary student and student wildlife technician from Poughquag, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Animal Science from Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2015, with minors in Biology and Music. Lauren is interested in mixed animal private practice and plans to continue to work with wildlife and enjoy music after graduation.

Sea Turtle Conservation in Costa Rica

As a senior in my undergraduate career, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Ostional, Costa Rica for a once in a lifetime experience. With one of the highest rates of biodiversity in the world, Costa Rica is a fascinating place to visit, especially if you are interested in wildlife. The town of Ostional is internationally recognized for its extensive sea turtle population, and I was very fortunate to spend two weeks at their National Wildlife Refuge. The Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is their most common inhabitant, but Ostional is also home to some Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and Green (Chelonia mydas) sea turtles.

Ostional is a small town located along the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. The flight into San Jose International Airport and the eight hour bus ride to Ostional were more than worth it. The beaches of Ostional were like nothing I had ever seen before. Watching the sunrise and sunset as it reflected off of the black sand was a wonderful way to begin and end each day. The local people and the staff of the refuge were very welcoming and excited about working with wildlife.


Working on the beach during the day is extremely difficult, so to avoid the blazing sun, volunteers work in the very early morning and the late evenings. The night shifts were my favorite part of my trip to Ostional. During these shifts, we were able to go out with the patrollers to scale the beaches for trespassers and collect measurements on nesting turtles. We were required to wear all dark clothing and a red-shining headlamp in order to not disturb the individuals. Using just moonlight, we were able to see the trackings of the mother turtles coming up from the water; the indentations in the sand from their flippers and plastron were very prominent without an external light source. The trackings were the first sign of a turtle’s presence on the beach, and as we followed, we could start to hear the turtle as she dragged her heavy body to her preferred nesting site.

As soon as a turtle was sighted, we would observe her to determine what stage of the process she was in, or if she was just emerging, we would remain as far as possible until she had decided on a location. Once settled, the nesting turtle will begin securing that spot by tossing sand and making an indent, where she will begin using her back flippers to dig a hole. Soon after, she will begin laying her eggs, and we would use this opportunity to take measurements such as carapace length and width, flipper length, nest depth, and the number of eggs laid. We also tagged the turtle on the front right flipper in the hopes of seeing her again for longitudinal studies. Finally, the mother turtle uses her back flippers to close up the hole, and then she packs the sand by driving her plastron into the sand before heading back to the water.

One night while patrolling the beach, it became very apparent that there was a significant increase in the amount of turtles nesting. The local patroller notified us that this was the sign of an “arribada”, or a large, synchronized nesting time. Sea turtles are usually known for their individual nesting, and this is true for most species of sea turtles. However, the Olive and Kemp’s Ridley turtles are specifically known to have these synchronized nesting times possibly in relation with specific patterns of the moon. The “arribada” was truly a natural wonder as thousands of nesting Olive Ridley turtles emerged from the water over a three day period during both the day and night. It has been estimated that as many as 20,000-60,000 turtles can come to the beach during the dry season, and during the wet season, as many as 90,000-150,000 turtles emerge from the water with the innate drive to lay their eggs in the same place where they hatched. Because of the exuberant amount of turtles looking for space, many turtles will begin to encroach on another’s nest and, unfortunately, many nests from the early hours may be compromised. This problem has been noted by the people of Ostional in the past and, as a result, a legal egg harvesting program was enacted in the 1980’s. This development was a hopeful way to merge economic advancement for the people of Ostional with a scientific venture to theoretically increase the success rate of nestings by increasing sand quality. It was also proposed that this program may also heavily decrease the temptation of poaching specifically on sea turtles that lay their eggs individually. These legal egg collections are only allowed for a specific number of hours after a declared “arribada”, and they are regulated by biologists in studied sections of the beach. Many have viewed the program as a success for both humans and wildlife, but many are also skeptical. Although there have been many longitudinal studies on the economic and scientific implications, this is still an active area of research and ethical conversation for the community.

Seeing thousands of Olive Ridley turtles was an experience in Ostional that I will never forget; however, I also had the additional experience to witness a leatherback sea turtle emerge from the water to lay her nest. Leatherback sea turtles are found periodically nesting on this beach, but they are definitely not as common as the Olive Ridley turtles. When the leatherback was sighted, it was truly a sight to behold, and word of her presence woke up many in the community to come to the beach. Leatherback sea turtles can weigh more than a thousand pounds, and the sound that the turtle made while traveling up the beach demonstrated just how massive she was. In Ostional, I got to learn from a special group of researchers as they collected the data on the less common species: the leatherback and green sea turtle. For this leatherback, the researchers collected her eggs to incubate in a more regulated environment. They do this in the hopes of having a better survival rate and an increase in the Ostional population of the leatherback because they are unfortunately declining. After the eggs hatch, a time is determined to release these newborns on the sand for optimal survival rates. During my stay, I was privileged to see the release of a hatched leatherback nest, and I will never forget the site of these small newborns as they quickly ran towards the open ocean.

Volunteering in Ostional was an extraordinary experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in wildlife. During my two weeks, I was able to work alongside wonderful local mentors and experience the effect of international wildlife programs. I am eternally grateful to the National Wildlife Refuge and my homestay family for this opportunity; it was surely an experience that shaped my desire to become a zoo and wildlife veterinarian.

If anyone has any questions or would like to talk more about this opportunity, please feel free to email me –



Victoria Albano is a first year veterinary student from Staten Island, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science from Cornell University in May of 2015, with a major in Animal Science. She is excited about zoo medicine and its impact working in conjunction with conservation education. She hopes to one day work as a zoo or wildlife veterinarian.

Spotted Salamander Migration

The spotted salamander is one of the most prominent salamanders found in the woods and forests around Ithaca. A few weeks ago, back when Ithaca briefly decided winter was ending, and it was beginning to feel more like spring, they began their annual migration. I was able to bring a handful of veterinary students with me to witness this event, and many seemed interested in learning more about these little guys and their lifecycle. I hope to address some of the more common questions here.

Spotted what?

The spotted salamander is a small (6 to 9-inch-long) salamander most notable for its blueish-black coloration, with two rows of bright yellow spots running down either side of its back from head to tail. It is commonly found in the Eastern United States and Canada. It belongs to a group of salamanders known as mole salamanders (genus Ambystoma), and, as such, is adapted to living most of its life on land. Its most significant adaptation is the presence of true lungs in the adult animal.

Why are they migrating?

Migration is a normal part of a spotted salamander’s life! Like all amphibians, once they hatch from their eggs, they begin their lives as aquatic and free-swimming larvae. The larvae will grow into juvenile salamanders capable of living on land within 2-4 months of hatching. However, to start out in water, their eggs must be laid in the water; this is where the migration comes in. Adult salamanders will often return to the pond in which they were born to find, and mate with, other salamanders. They will then lay their eggs in large jelly-like clumps that can be found underwater in these ponds. After a couple of months, the eggs will hatch, starting the cycle over again.

How often does this happen?

Photo by Elle Gunzel

Spotted salamanders are triggered by the warming weather and gentle rains that come with the end of winter and beginning of spring. When it is too cold, their metabolism is simply not active enough to allow them to make the trip, and a prolonged journey in dry weather can be damaging to their skin. Additionally, most salamanders breed in vernal ponds, which can dry up later in the season. As the salamander’s future offspring need to be fully developed and able to survive on land by the time the pools dry up, there is significant pressure on these animals to get out and migrate as soon as possible. As a result, you typically will only see one migration a year, consisting of all the salamanders living in a specific area. It is important to note that spotted salamanders will also migrate back from their vernal ponds after breeding, but this event is much less predictable, and much less spectacular, as they will move in several waves.

Where do they live normally?

When not breeding or migrating, spotted salamanders adopt a lifecycle similar to all other mole salamanders. They live in forests, under leaf litter and debris where it remains moist most of the time. They will also inhabit burrows to stay cool and moist. While not big diggers themselves, they will gladly occupy the burrows of other animals, if available. This tends to be not a big problem, as it allows them to hide from most larger predators, and smaller predators will be dissuaded by the toxins found in the salamander’s skin. In the event they do encounter a predator, salamanders have an unprecedented ability to regenerate their body. They have been noted to regrow their tails, limbs, and even parts of their brain, although this can take a massive amount of energy.

How do they survive the winter?

With the onset of winter, spotted salamanders will typically seek out deep burrows, hopefully ones that are under the frost line. When cold weather comes, these animals will enter a state known as brumation. Brumation is similar to hibernation in mammals, such as seen in black bears. However, hibernation is a state caused by prolonged unconsciousness, whereas brumation is a state were prolonged unconsciousness is caused by a lack of metabolism. Bears sleep to hibernate; amphibians are asleep because of brumation. If the weather warms up, as tends to happen periodically, brumating animals will become briefly active, whereas hibernating animals will stay asleep. Additionally, when the seasons change many amphibians have the ability to rapidly mobilize glycogen into glucose, thus raising the amount of glucose present in their blood and tissues. This effectively raises the freezing point of their tissues, similar in effect to putting antifreeze in your car. This also means that, upon defrosting, these animals will rapidly have a source of glucose to keep their cells alive, even if their circulatory system hasn’t fully recovered yet.

How do you know when the migration is occurring?

I got this question a lot. What it breaks down to is knowing the natural biology of the spotted salamander that I have previously discussed. Upon the end of winter, usually in March or April, you need to wait for the right conditions. On particularly rainy days, where the average temperature is at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit, you should have a high suspicion that these animals will be on the move. I simply waited for the right conditions, and went to check the fields on appropriate nights. The migrations start around 8:00 pm, with peak movements occurring between 9-11 pm, although it may continue throughout the night. If you see salamanders as early as 8:00 pm, you can guarantee there will be more on the move shortly.

Do be careful if you go out though. Salamanders and other amphibians have not exactly adapted well to human encroachment of their environment. While this weather means there will be lots of salamanders on the fields, there will also be salamanders, frogs, and toads out enjoying the wonderful weather on the roads. The day after every warm, rainy night, you will invariably find squashed amphibians on roads that are near ponds. If you live near such a pond (the high-pitched chirping of thousands of spring peepers will tell you if you do), please be careful on the roads, and keep a lookout for our tiny “cold-blooded” friends.


Jonah Marion  is a second year Cornell veterinary student with a primary interest in reptile and companion exotic animal medicine.

Subtleties of Animal Behavior in Zoo Medicine

Mary restraining a golden pheasant during a series of wellness checks and blood draws completed on a variety of exotic chickens and pheasants.

A day in the life of a zoo veterinarian: a fer de lance cardiac consult, thirty outtake exams and blood draws on various breeds of chickens and pheasants, and a recheck on a Pacu fish with abrasions and missing scales. During the summer of 2017, I interned at the Staten Island Zoo: New York’s Biggest Little Zoo. I worked with amazing people and learned many valuable lessons. I medicated snakes via gavage tubes, practiced darting using a target board, and appreciated the vast differences between zoo and companion animal medicine. While many of the same principles are used, the tactics and methods of implementation differ because the animals that we deal with in zoo animal medicine are dangerous, wild, easily stressed, or some combination of the three (usually all three).

This summer, I learned the importance of understanding animal behavior in zoo medicine. Reading behavioral signs to infer how an animal is feeling and predict how it may react is integral to proper animal management, housing, efficient medical treatment, and many other contexts. In a small animal setting, a scared or aggressive dog can inflict a severe bite wound. Irritation and loss of patience in a full-grown male ostrich, on the other hand, can lead to severe injuries such as broken bones, spinal injuries, or even death. We pay attention to these cues and don’t take them lightly, for safety reasons. Additionally, understanding animal behavior allows us to influence that behavior, and train animals to perform certain behaviors on cue. Training can be utilized to facilitate interactions with and evaluate larger and more dangerous animals on a regular basis without anesthetizing them, which is important for wellness checks and physical exams. It also allows the public to interact with animals in a more close-up setting, during education programs with ambassador animals.

Suntanning kangaroo

For zookeepers and the zoo veterinarian, the first step in understanding animal behavior is recognizing a change from what is considered normal in that species. Animals do their best not to appear ill, which makes it difficult to recognize a problem early on. This especially rings true for animals in the wild, since predators target the visibly weak or ill prey for their next meal. But subtle changes in behavior – namely, depression – can be an early indicator that something is wrong and allows for earlier diagnostics and intervention. This summer, an otherwise healthy-looking chuckwalla was not standing at attention with her neck and head extended, as many lizards normally do. Instead, she was sprawled out on her belly. The ability to recognize this behavior as abnormal prompted us to draw a blood sample, and ultimately diagnose and treat anemia.

Alpaca gossip

Understanding animal behavior is also critical in a captive setting to decide which animals are housed together. Animals, just like humans, have complex social interactions and develop social hierarchy systems. New animals must be introduced to a group slowly, to prevent disruptions in social structure which could lead to fights that result in injuries. This summer, two female Kenyan Crested Guineafowl were brought to the Staten Island Zoo for breeding and were to be housed in the same enclosure as the two existing males birds at the zoo. The new members were left in their carriers within the exhibit for a few hours to allow the birds to interact through the bars, before they were given full access to one another. Similarly, after removing a Gambel’s quail from its group for several days for treatment of a leg injury, we separated the large group into two smaller groups. Because the birds were reestablishing their social hierarchy, reintroducing the previously injured bird as part of a group of three reduces the chances that she will be targeted during these fights.

Successfully introducing dangerous animals to one another must be done cautiously, particularly when the animals are endangered. The Staten Island Zoo recently acquired a new female Amur leopard, Liski, as a breeding partner for the resident male, Kolya. The entire introduction process was done slowly and carefully, since the animals can easily harm one another and their caretakers. First, the leopards exchanged enclosures at night, in order to pick up the other’s scent. Then, they were allowed to interact through the fencing. These two steps occurred over the course of several weeks to ensure Liski adjusted well fully introducing the two leopards to one another. Liski and her trainer worked closely multiple times a week, and over time, we learned more about her as an individual animal and better understand her personality.

On the day the two leopards were first introduced, we gathered several keepers, interns, and the vet together, instructing each person to watch the two animals very carefully. The room was full of excitement; every person was on their toes. They were given about 5 minutes to interact that first day before being separated once more. We allowed the leopards to repeat this interaction three times a week, for several weeks – and each time, we increased the length of time that they were allowed together. By the end of the summer, the two leopards were allowed on exhibit together, respecting each other’s space. Each animal even has their own “favorite spot”.

Mary assist feeding a sick baby bat

If understanding behavioral cues is important in our day to day interactions with one another as humans, it is so much more important when interacting with animals, since there is a literal communication barrier. It is even more important when working with non-domestic animals, since they often view humans as a threat to their well-being. The many cases I have seen last summer have illustrated how understanding behavior impacts the success of treatment, while simultaneously keeping animal staff out of harm’s way. I am grateful to have had this experience, not simply because I’ve worked on improving my clinical and handling skills with a large variety of species, but also because I’ve learned more about the subtleties involved in zoo medicine.


Mary Nasr is a second year vet student from Staten Island, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science from Rutgers University in 2016, with a major in Animal Science. She is passionate about zoo and wildlife medicine, conservation, and education, and aspires to build a career around zoo/wildlife surgery and anesthesia.

Belize Zoo – how things have changed

Scarlet Macaw rescued from the wildlife pet trade. They are highly susceptible to deforestation and poaching.

Sharon Matola (on the right) is describing the story of this crocodile whom the Belize Zoo staff and her staff raised from birth. The croc prefers to be held by humans and scratched on the sensitive skin on its forehead.

As you walk through the entrance of the Belize Zoo, you almost bump your head on the massive tapir skeleton hanging from the ceiling. The entrance hallway beyond is lined with photos of Sharon Matola (Belize Zoo founder and director) exploring the zoo with conservation heroes such as Steve Erwin. You just know that you are about to walk into a place that is profound and special. The hallway opens into a stunning rainforest environment where, as your eyes adjust, two large enclosures built into the forest house two stoic King Vultures and two chatty Scarlet Macaws (separated, of course!). The zoo is quite literally built into the rainforest, being a maze of paths that open into beautiful enclosures. When you get lost on the paths, as I often did, you can watch talkative wild red-lored parrots fly overhead, spot agouti and armadillos scampering on the paths,

and observe a wild hybrid freshwater and saltwater crocodile, who happened to make residence in the zoo one day, basking in the sun. It is as if you are within an enclosure, observing the animals of Belize in their natural habitat. All of the animals at the zoo come from  traumatizing backgrounds: victims of the wildlife pet trade, poaching and deforestation. Each one is cherished and cared for by Sharon Matola and the Belize Zoo staff.  These animals, having lived a haunting and traumatic past, now live happily rehabilitated in the zoo, serving as education icons for their wild counterparts. Talk to any Belizian and they have been to the zoo within the last 6 months. This is a place where Belizians can observe and learn about the animals that they have only heard about in stories during their childhood. It is a place where an infamous myth about an animal – such as believing a barn owl to be a bad omen – is replaced with admiration and adoration that comes from observing and learning about these animals. It is a place where Belizians can feel a sense of national pride, being able to watch these unique native species and develop intimate connections to them. One such encounter includes feeding a banana to Belize’s national animal, the tapir, who is typically elusive and concealed in the wild. Plus, The Belize Zoo is the first wheelchair-accessible nature destination in Belize, making it truly reachable to any person.

This winter, 18 Cornell students and clinicians traveled to Belize to continue the amazing partnership with Cornell Vet Med, the Belize Zoo, and support from the John T. and Jane A. Wiederhold Foundation. Cornell now sends a team every six months to provide veterinary care to a diverse array of native Belizian wildlife. Amongst the team this year were Wildlife / Zoo veterinarian and resident Drs. Sara Childs-Sanford and Cindy Hopf with wildlife technician Alice Van DeMark, veterinarian anesthesiologist and resident Drs. Robin Gleed and Katie Zatroch, Dentistry and Oral Surgery veterinarian and resident Drs. Santiago Peralta and Lindsey Schneider accompanied by dental technician Bethany Wright, and two teacher assistants / third year vet students, Zachary Dvornicky-Raymond and myself (William Fugina). Additionally, 8 Cornell veterinary students accompanied the team to assist with procedures and gain an incredible experience.

Here’s vet student’s Mariah Beck (back right), Eric Teplitz (left) and myself ultrasounding the kidneys of a Kinkajou while anesthesia and dentistry residents Drs. Katie Zatroch and Lindsay Schneider are hard at work!

Here are the pharmacy and lab diagnostic counters that we organized to make finding medication and conducting diagnostics more efficient.

Throughout this partnership, the zoo has been adding new equipment and facilities to the clinic, thanks to fundraising and donations from collaborating institutions like Cornell and the BZNC (Belize Zoo Nature Conservancy). This being my second consecutive year at the Belize Zoo, I saw just in a year’s span how much the clinical facility improved. Taking a more administrative role at the zoo this year, I was able to observe the ebb and flow of the new clinic. I felt that the improvements facilitated a strategic and logical flow reminiscent of our animal hospital at Cornell.  Additional to the clinical improvements, there is now an organized diagnostic lab where we made fecal and blood smears, cytology, and organized samples for CBC and chemistry panels. This year, we were able to do thorough diagnostic workups for every animal we worked on. This enabled us to make more directed diagnoses and treatment plans for the animals. Finally, there was now an organized pharmacy with a documented inventory, easily accessible for clinicians or zoo staff to establish and prepare treatment protocols. This also enables the zoo and visiting organizations to coordinate on what medications are in short supply, so that visiting groups can replenish and replace medications and supplies. I discuss the improvements in such detail because of how important I felt it was towards enhancing the student’s experience. Whether you were scrubbing in on a jaguar dental surgery, managing anesthesia of a puma, or running diagnostics on toucan blood, there was a job to be done, even for 18 people.


Here I captured the flawless ebb and flow of
procedures done at the zoo. Dr. Schneider (left) is conducting her dental exam on this jaguar while vet student Eric Teplitz scribes the findings as the dental technician. Vet Students Benjamin Jakobek (Middle), Zack Dvornicky-Raymond (middle right) and William (Perry) Koehler (left) observe and listen to Dr. Cindy Hopf teach while ultrasounding the kidneys.

Drs. Schneider (left) and Peralta (right) diagnose tooth root absorption in this jaguar while William Koehler on the left waits patiently to get his hands in on the action as the dental surgery technician. I am gathering on vitals.

The partnership the Belize Zoo has made with Cornell Vet Med truly facilitates a world-class veterinary opportunity for veterinary students, technicians and clinicians. What excited me most about this opportunity was the collaboration amongst veterinary specialties. With our diverse team consisting of anesthesiologists, wildlife veterinarians and dentists, they provided these unique animals with a thorough and specialized form of veterinary care parallel to that of a referral hospital, except in a zoo setting within a developing country. Additionally, these collaborations facilitated new insights and discoveries in veterinary medicine which may have not occurred if not for this partnership.

Here are the dental radiographs from this
jaguar. The blown-up photo on the right shows two teeth with evidence of tooth root
absorption. Extraction was indicated for any
tooth undergoing this process because it’s a
very painful, unmanageable condition.

For example, Cornell’s dental team was working on one of the zoo’s jaguars. After a thorough dental exam including  radiographs, they diagnosed tooth resorption, a common idiopathic dental pathology in domestic cats. To their knowledge, this was the first documented case in a jaguar. With the pending histopathologic information on the extracted teeth from this case, this could provide vital information to the idiopathic nature of this disease in domestic cats as well as make this a notable disease to keep on the differential list in dental pathology of large felids. As a student, I see the enormous benefit and need for more veterinary specialty collaborations in conservation. In providing experiences like this to students, it enables us to realize that no matter the specialty or type or veterinary medicine you track, you can still take part in wildlife medicine and conservation. Additionally, this experience reflects the benefits of maintaining successful long term international partnerships, where resources, knowledge and stories are shared amongst newfound friends and colleagues over a few Belikans and many laughs.  I look forward to seeing how this partnership transforms in the future, and I am excited to hopefully one day join a future team as a veterinarian. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: William Fugina is a third-year veterinary student at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

The Dangers of Anticoagulant Poisons

Many people choose to use poisons or rodenticides, such as warfarin, as a solution to rodent pests. Warfarin, used in human medicine as a blood thinner, is an anticoagulant, which means it prevents the formation of blood clots. Anticoagulants block an enzyme that activates vitamin K; without vitamin K, normal coagulation or clotting pathways based on factors from the liver cannot function once those existing factors are depleted. Therefore, vitamin K is an antidote to the effects of anticoagulant rodenticide. Rodents that eat enough poisoned bait die from massive hemorrhage in 3 to 5 days. This unfortunately can happen to any animal that directly ingests anticoagulant bait (primary exposure) or any animal that eats another animal (or carcass) that contains the rodenticide toxin (secondary exposure).

A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) presented to the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center (WHC) last year with presumed rodenticide toxicity from a poisoned meal. Turkey vultures are commonly found on rooftops sunning or in the sky soaring up high circling over a carcass, as they are scavengers. Physically, they have bald, featherless red heads and black bodies with a wide wingspan. More information about this species and other birds can be found at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.

This patient was found lethargic and unable to fly, and when evaluated at the WHC had pale pink gums, blood in the feces, and bruising across much of its body. A blood sample was taken to see how many red blood cells the creature had, and it came back low, indicating anemia. In addition, when the blood sample was taken, the vulture had difficulty clotting at the venipuncture site. Based on these findings, the vulture was hypothesized to have anticoagulant rodenticide toxicity. There is no definitive way to diagnose rodenticide toxicity in birds while they are alive. Other clinical signs that may point towards this diagnosis include bleeding (external or internal without adequate clot formation) and/or loss of appetite. Blood clotting times can be evaluated in domestic animals but may be prolonged for various reasons besides anticoagulant toxicity, and are not available in birds at this time. Post-mortem (after death) laboratory tests of the liver may reveal high toxic rodenticide values and sometimes the poison is found in the stomach contents.

During evaluation of the vulture, a lead test was also performed, and blood lead levels were normal (For more information on lead toxicity in wildlife, see “The Price of Freedom: How our choice to use lead is killing the bald eagle”).

Fluids to increase blood volume and bolster hydration were part of this vulture’s supportive care. Vitamin K was administered to treat the presumptive anticoagulant rodenticide toxicity. Over the course of its treatment, the turkey vulture’s bruising resolved, its gums became a healthy pink, and its anemia was corrected as evident from another red blood cell count a few days later. Throughout its time at the WHC, the turkey vulture retained its wild nature, using the species’ characteristic projectile vomiting as a defense mechanism whenever it was restrained for treatment. Getting rid of a recent meal decreases their weight so they can fly away and is repulsive to the predator trying to catch them, giving them more time to escape. In total, the turkey vulture was at the WHC for 10 days before being transferred to a rehabilitator for continued treatment, physical conditioning, and eventual release.

In a recent study (Kelly 2014), rodenticide toxicity was reported to be highly likely in turkey vultures as a primary or contributing cause of death, due to their scavenged carrion diet. It is unknown what the true impact of anticoagulant rodenticides is on wildlife, as some of the animals in that study were found to have rodenticides in their bodies and yet did not show signs of poisoning. Chronic anticoagulant rodenticide exposure may predispose birds to adverse growth rates, alterations in their physiology, and suppressed immunity. Monitoring of wildlife rodenticide concentrations, such as through deceased hospital and rehabilitation animals, may be useful in understanding and addressing this issue in wildlife. Alternatives to the use of anticoagulant and other types of rodenticides for rodent control include using Havahart® or other live traps, consulting pest control professionals, and maybe adopting a cat.

Though this review focused on turkey vultures, any species of bird or mammal is susceptible to anticoagulant rodenticide toxicity. In many studies and surveys, rodenticide residues were found in well over 50% of necropsied raptors and other birds, which encouraged the founding of such organizations as Raptors are the Solution (RATS, which aims to educate about raptors’ ecological role and the dangers of rodenticides). From the Pet Poison Helpline, rodenticide toxicity is second on their top ten pet poisons list for dogs and tenth for cats. Frighteningly, thousands of children ingest toxic amounts of rodenticides yearly, and frantic parents make calls to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fortunately, there are safety precautions: second generation anticoagulant rodenticides (even more dangerous than warfarin, which is of the first generation) were prevented from registration for use in products geared for consumers in residential communities of the U.S. starting in 2011. Be sure to keep rodenticides away from your children, pets, and wildlife.

Further information about anticoagulant and other types of rodenticides that animals may be exposed to can be found here.


Lauren Jacobs is a third year Cornell veterinary student and student wildlife technician from Poughquag, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Animal Science from Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2015, with minors in Biology and Music. Lauren is interested in mixed animal private practice and plans to continue to work with wildlife and enjoy music after graduation.