The Price of Freedom: How our Choice to use Lead is Killing the Bald Eagle (Part 2)

This post was originally published at Science@CornellVet on August 2, 2017 by Melissa Hanson, third year Cornell DVM student.  

juvenile bald eagle

A juvenile bald eagle receives treatment at the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center

Last week offered a glimpse into the work the Animal Health Diagnostic Center and Wildlife Health Team has done to quantify the impact of lead on our native wildlife, but what does the story look like from the perspective of Cornell’s clinicians? Dr. Sara Childs-Sanford, a veterinarian at the Janet L. Swanson’s Wildlife Health Center, a clinical service of the Cornell University Hospital for Animals (CUHA), shared her experience treating local wildlife directly impacted by the toxic element.

“A typical patient presenting with lead toxicity is a raptor species (bird of prey) or waterfowl. These animals are weak, and often have neurologic signs and ileus (failure of food to pass through the digestive tract),” says Childs-Sanford. “Concerned members of the public usually bring the animal to CUHA after observing it unable to fly or walk.”

She explains that the primary treatment of these animals involves supportive care for dehydration and emaciation, and a blood draw to screen for serum lead values. Her team uses an in-house lead analyzer is to detect lead concentration in the blood, giving them a rapid answer regarding lead toxicity in a patient.

With the help of the analyzer, virtually every raptor or waterfowl species patient that comes through the door is screened for lead toxicity, allowing treatment to begin immediately. To target the lead, the Wildlife Health Center team uses chelation therapy, which involves the introduction of compounds that bind lead and thus allow it to be excreted by the patient. Chelation therapy is completed in five day increments for a minimum of two weeks, but many patients need to remain under the care of Childs-Sanford’s team or a wildlife rehabilitator for much longer.

What harm can a little lead do? When ingested by an animal, lead is absorbed through the blood stream where it disrupts heme synthesis, a process required for oxygen delivery. The toxin is then distributed throughout the body where it deposits in soft tissue, organs, and bone, degenerating nerves and interrupting signaling pathways necessary for neurologic and gastrointestinal function. The prognosis for patients is widely variable and dependent upon the levels of lead detected, the organ systems affected, and most importantly, how long the toxicity has been present. In general, acutely affected animals carry a better prognosis than those with chronic exposure. Unfortunately, for waterfowl and piscivorous raptors, continually eating from a contaminated body of water often results in the latter.

radiograph of a common loon with a lead sinker in its digestive tract

Radiograph of a common loon with a lead sinker visible in the digestive tract

So, what can you do to help? For Childs-Sanford, part of the solution is clear: don’t use lead bullets or sinkers, and don’t cut fishing lines into the water. “Lead in the wild comes from people,” she stated, noting that its inexpensiveness and the lack of public awareness of its effects are likely to blame for its continued use. While the Wildlife Health Center is capable of treating animals on an individual basis, the true answer to the lead problem lies in addressing its source—us. Increased education for hunters and fishermen is vital, and eliminating the use of lead materials in our environment is the only way to save our wildlife from its devastating effects. Until then, Childs-Sanford and her team will take it one patient at a time.


Melissa is a third-year veterinary student from Cortlandt Manor, New York. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Duquesne University where she majored in biology and minored in biochemistry and history. Her interests are in clinical zoo and wildlife medicine and particularly rescue, rehabilitation, and release. She works as student technician at the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center, a service of the Cornell University Hospital for Animals.

The Price of Freedom: How our choice to use lead is killing the bald eagle (Part 1)

This post was originally published at Science@CornellVet on July 27, 2017 by Melissa Hanson, third year Cornell DVM student.

bald eagle

Photo credit: Animal Health Diagnostic Center

The bald eagle is an American icon, a symbol of freedom, and for conservationists, one of the nation’s greatest success stories. Restored from near extinction, the species has been thriving once again—or so we thought. As it turns out, mankind may be placing unnecessary pressure on America’s best known bird.

Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC) employs some of the brightest minds in ecology and wildlife health. Dr. Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist, has been leading the research effort exploring the role environmental lead plays in bald eagle health. Schuler partnered with the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation to analyze two decades’ worth of data collected from New York State to identify sources of mortality. Their results are disturbing: 17% of bald eagle carcasses examined revealed death due to lead poisoning, and 80% had measurable lead levels in their blood, tissues, or bone. Schuler reports that adult eagles are more likely to die from lead poisoning than juveniles, posing a serious threat to the reproductive success of the species because adults nest and rear young.

Where is all this lead coming from? A likely significant source is ammunition. Lead bullets are commonly and traditionally used for game hunting, which can leave trace levels in meat as well as in the environment. When carcasses or offal are left on the landscape, eagles will scavenge from them, consuming lead bullet fragments. Lead is toxic to all animals, including humans, and eating venison shot with lead bullets may pose a risk to consumers. Schuler explains that the bullet fragments when it hits its target, and small shards can travel more than a foot from the wound channel where they are less likely to be removed during the butchering process. Pregnant women and children are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of lead, as developing tissues are vulnerable and easily damaged by the toxin.

So, how can we protect our families and our wildlife? Consider alternative ammunition. Modern non-lead bullets are inexpensive and do not foul firearms, as was once widely believed in the hunting community. These alternatives are safe and effective, and when combined with proper hunting etiquette, such as recovering carcasses and properly disposing of entrails, can make a real impact in the levels of lead present in the environment. Even recreational shooting with lead contaminates the environment, and participants should also consider alternatives. Lead bullets may be traditional, but they are also replaceable.

While 80% of bald eagles with measurable lead is a startling figure on its own, it is important to recognize that this species serves only as a snapshot of the entire picture. Lead is toxic to all wildlife and humans, and shared sources of food are the common denominator. “This is a problem that is both man-made and solvable,” says Schuler, emphasizing that humans have introduced lead into the environment and therefore hold the responsibility of removing it as well. Research conducted by the AHDC brings to light the severity of lead toxicity in New York State, exposing it as a true threat to wildlife health where it otherwise may have persisted as a silent killer. Schuler adds, “Just because we don’t see piles of dead eagles doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.” Thanks to her contribution, both problem and solution are now quite clear.


Melissa is a third-year veterinary student from Cortlandt Manor, New York. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Duquesne University where she majored in biology and minored in biochemistry and history. Her interests are in clinical zoo and wildlife medicine and particularly rescue, rehabilitation, and release. She works as student technician at the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center, a service of the Cornell University Hospital for Animals.

Wildlife Health Cornell takes new approach to natural world

This month, Cornell welcomed back thousands of alumni from many different locations, generations, interests, and affiliations to their home on The Hill. This was a very special weekend for Wildlife Health Cornell, because it was the first time that this initiative was publicly presented. The Reunion Weekend 2017 panel is just the beginning of the gradual unveiling of Wildlife Health Cornell. Stay tuned for more to come!

To read more about the Reunion Weekend panel, click here.

To read the first Wildlife Health Cornell newsletter, click here.

Wildlife Health Cornell represents an unprecedented approach to the health challenges wild animals face here in the northeast U.S. and around the world  – a comprehensive, science-based response by a team of the world’s top wildlife health experts.  With an emphasis on the types of interdisciplinary collaboration often required to foster real progress along the science to policy and action continuum, Wildlife Health Cornell has grown out of a palpable sense of genuine urgency regarding the fate of our planet’s wildlife, an increasing understanding of our own dependence on the planet’s natural systems, and a recognition that it will take a new generation of colleagues to halt and reverse the trends we face.

Cornell University today is very much about impact, about teamwork that capitalizes upon the vast array of disciplinary expertise available across the university, and about engagement. We hope you find this first edition of our e-newsletter useful and thought-provoking.

– Steve Osofsky, DVM
Jay Hyman Professor of Wildlife Health & Health Policy

Wildlife Health: new faculty to focus on Planetary Health at Cornell CVM

Image from Dr. Osofsky’s “Explaining Planetary Health” article, One-Health Cornell Blog.

The CUCVM student community would like to extend a warm welcome to a number of phenomenal new hires in the wildlife health realm. Recently, the CVM has brought-on seven faculty and staff, with the goal of growing Wildlife Health / One Health / Planetary Health programs at a critical time in the College’s strategic planning.  The group strives to develop and apply science-based, multidisciplinary approaches to conservation, including through a focus on Planetary Health. In short, Planetary Health is a field focused on improving our understanding and applying appropriate metrics regarding the public health impacts of anthropogenic environmental change, so as to be able to inform decision-making in the land-use planning, environmental conservation, and public health policy realms. Planetary Health also provides a lens for the new CVM-led Master of Public Health program, with its first class starting in September of 2017. There have already been numerous excellent discussions and many new initiatives are underway, not only within the CVM, but throughout the University. Hopefully, new collaborative efforts will arise and continue to foster future discussions and cross-disciplinary action!

We look forward to the incredible things that will come from these new appointments, not only for Wildlife Health and Environmental Conservation at our University, but for conservation initiatives worldwide.

Please join me in welcoming:

Dr. Steven A. Osofsky, Jay Hyman Professor of Wildlife Health & Health Policy

Dr. Martin Gilbert, Senior Research Associate in Wildlife Health

Ms. Helen Lee, Wildlife Health & Health Policy – planning and operations

Ms. Shirley Atkinson, Wildlife Health & Health Policy – Southern Africa, AHEAD Program

Dr. Montira Pongsiri, Planetary Health Alliance Science Policy Advisor

Dr. María Forzán, Senior Research Associate in Wildlife Pathology

Dr. Mani Lejeune, Director of Clinical Parasitology and Senior Extension Associate at the Animal Health Diagnostic Center


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Zack Dvornicky-Raymond is a current second-year vet student interested in wildlife conservation and One Health, and hopes to pursue a career focused on reproduction and population management in endangered/threatened wild species.

Lab of O Bird Cams: Barred Owl

Banner from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Barred Owl live camera feed, where a female barred owl is incubating 3 eggs!

Update (April 5, 2017) – The chicks are hatching!

From the Lab of Ornithology newsletter:

What to watch for: During the day you can listen to the sounds of spring arrive to the forests as the female incubates her eggs. At night, watch as the male owl delivers a steady stream of interesting prey items … to the nest box and listen for the owls’ classic “whoo-cooks-for-you?” hooting duets. After hatching, it takes only 4 to 5 weeks for the owlets to transform from close-eyed, downy fluffballs to fierce, sometimes clumsy youngsters before setting out to explore the world. …

Share what you see and hear with us on the cam’s Twitter feed, @WBU_Owls, and join us in learning more about these secretive and adaptable predators.

Happy National Wildlife Week 2017!

Every year, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) hosts National Wildlife Week (this year, Monday March 13th through Friday March 17th).  NWW is an education program aimed at increasing wildlife awareness among K-12 students.  This year’s campaign includes a bracket where kids can vote each day for their favorite animals, learn about each species’ life and habitat, symbolically adopt the animals and read about programs that aid in their conservation.

China’s Promise: stopping the trade in elephant ivory

A message brought to you by the Cornell Elephant Listening Project.

In a time of global uncertainty and increased tension, elephants have just been given their best chance of survival since the start of Africa’s exploitation centuries ago. China’s president Xi Jinping has followed through on an agreement with Barak Obama to commit to a timetable for reducing the brutal demand for ivory that is wiping out Africa’s elephants.

China has promised that it will have stopped domestic trade in ivory by the end of 2017. China represents the world’s largest ivory market.  If the bottom drops out of the market, the incentives to kill will drop, too.

As WildAid said so well:

“When the buying stops, the killing can too”

We need to recognize that ending trade will be very difficult, and it is important to empathize with the many artisans who will lose jobs.  But this is intervention is a critical step towards saving the African elephant, and it is intervention on a scale that will make a difference.

While it is our responsibility to recognize positive steps, we also must raise our voices when needed so that the promise is kept.  Spread the news about this trade ban, and help China receive recognition for following through on this important promise.

The bar has been set – thank you, China.

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March 3rd: World Wildlife Day!

On 20 December 2013, at its 68th session, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) proclaimed 3 March, the day of signature of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as UN World Wildlife Day to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants. The UNGA resolution also designated the CITES Secretariat as the facilitator for the global observance of this special day for wildlife on the UN calendar.

World Wildlife Day will be celebrated in 2017 under the theme “Listen to the Young Voices.” Given that almost one quarter of the world’s population is aged between 10 and 24, vigorous efforts need to be made to encourage young people, as the future leaders and decision makers of the world, to act at both local and global levels to protect endangered wildlife.

The engagement and empowerment of youth is high on the agenda of the United Nations and this objective is being achieved through the youth programmes of various UN system organizations as well as the dedicated UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth.

In September 2016, Parties to CITES gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) and adopted the very first CITES resolution on ‘Youth Engagement’ – calling for greater engagement and empowerment of youth in conservation issues.

World Wildlife Day 2017 encourages youth around the world to rally together to address ongoing major threats to wildlife including habitat change, over-exploitation or illicit trafficking. Youth are the agents of change. In fact, we are already seeing the positive impacts on conservation issues made by some young conservation leaders around the world. If they can help make a change, you can too!

Governments, law makers, enforcement officers, customs officials and park rangers across every region are scaling up their efforts to protect wildlife. It is also up to every citizen, young and old, to protect wildlife and their habitats. We all have a role to play. Our collective conservation actions can be the difference between a species surviving or disappearing.

It’s time for us all to listen to the young voices.


Cornell scientists and K12 students monitor NYS waterways for invasive aquatic species

Brooklyn students collect water samples to test for the presence of invasive species. Credit: Cornell University


Invasive aquatic species like round goby, Asian carp, and sea lamprey are a growing problem in New York State. Their presence impacts water quality, food supply, recreation and tourism, as well as human and animal health. Early detection is a critical first step in monitoring a species’ spread and managing responses.

Scientists at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine have devised genetic tests that can detect the environmental DNA (eDNA) of  in a waterway before they become established there. But there are more than 7,600 freshwater lakes and ponds and over 70,000 miles of rivers and streams in New York State, all of them potential conduits for the unwelcome species. How can the Cornell team watch them all for signs of a potential invasion? The answer: teams of young citizen scientists from schools located near a lake, river, or creek, who gather water samples to send to Cornell for analysis.

Dr. Donna Cassidy-Hanley, a senior research associate at the Cornell Veterinary College, had already worked with teachers across New York state to provide hands-on resources for teaching basic science. Teaming up with Cornell Professor James Casey, who developed the genetic tests, Cassidy-Hanley went back to those teachers with a new proposal: Engage your students in a hands-on research project with Cornell scientists that introduces them to invasive species, ecology, environmental management, and bio-informatics, and that has important real world impact.

The response has been amazing. “We had hoped to get five or six teachers involved in the pilot program,” says Hanley-Cassidy. “We currently have 60 teachers across the state.” Students at schools from New York City to small rural upstate towns have joined in the effort to monitor the spread of invasive fish, contributing critical data and learning about science firsthand.

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