Lessons from Wolf Tracking in the Pacific Northwest

Wild wolf caught on trail camera.

Few species have as storied a history with humans as the wolf. From an early age, I was fascinated by their prehistoric domestication and their more recent exterminations and reintroductions. I devoured every book about wolves I could find, and learned about the 1995 reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. I found it so fascinating that one species could have such an extensive impact on the landscape. The wolves pushed elk from their comfortable hangouts on river banks, allowing stream flora to build up, and a greater variety of birds to make their homes on the banks. Wolves’ presence went so far as to have a physical effect on the topography of the area, and even brought back the quaking aspen tree from the brink of extinction! Learning these facts made me realize how important wolves are to their ecosystems as a keystone species, and kindled my desire to go out and explore the land they were changing.  

As a high school freshman already thinking about a career working with animals, I took part in a wolf tracking summer camp for teenagers run by Wilderness Awareness School, based in Washington State (quite a distance away from my home in New Jersey). At this camp we searched for signs of wildlife during the day on field expeditions, and came back in the afternoon to hit our mobile library to research our observations. Our instructors drilled us in subjects like paw pad morphology, bird markings, and common behaviors of local wildlife. We developed our deductive reasoning skills by transforming our observations on the ground into conclusions about the ecosystem’s structure. Every time we thought we’d found a sign of the area’s resident wolf pack, we’d mark it down on our map. By the end of the camp we had a pretty good idea of its recent activities. We left a trail camera at one of their high activity sites, and captured a video of an adult wolf accompanied by that year’s new litter of pups! Not only was it rewarding to see such elusive animals on our own cameras, but also we were the first observers to confirm that the pack had whelped that year. We were able to provide that information to Washington’s state scientist.

Front and hind track from a wolf in the cascade mountains.

There I also learned about the current challenges that occur when the lives of wolves and people intersect. In Washington and Idaho where wolves travel down from Canada and up from their reintroduction point in Yellowstone, they live on the same land where cattle farmers raise free range beef. Needless to say, this creates a complex intersection of values. Cattle farmers depend on their livestock for their livelihoods. Ranchers and their communities are concerned that wolves will harm that livelihood by killing their cattle instead of elusive deer. Whether it was seeing bumper stickers that said “smoke a pack a day” next to a picture of a wolf’s head, or hearing stories about hunters shouting at the top of the lungs that all wolves need to go to hell, I learned quickly that people felt strongly about this issue. As a future veterinarian and scientist, I understand the need for veterinarians to protect and help both cattle and wolves, supporting farmers and healthy ecosystems. 

Before attending this program, I didn’t understand how reintroducing wolves could have any negative impacts. Through my experience at Wilderness Awareness School I came to appreciate the validity of the concerns for reintroduction. Even if reintroducing wolves benefits the overall ecosystem, we cannot ignore the effects they have on ranchers’ livelihoods. Whether it’s protecting a herd of cattle, or treating an injured wolf, veterinarians can help innovate solutions to benefit all animals, wild and domestic. 

Patrick Liu, class of 2024, is a Cornell DVM student. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from Rutgers University in 2020, and plans to pursue internships and residencies after veterinary school. Apart from his love for horses, he has a strong interest in ecological research and wildlife and conservation medicine. 



My Introduction to Marine Mammal Medicine

Four dolphins jump gracefully out of the water at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Florida

Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Florida is a not-for-profit organization that offers dolphin-assisted therapy programs to children, adults with special needs, and their families and caregivers. The founders, Deena and Peter Hoagland, created the organization back in 1997 after their son personally experienced the healing powers that dolphin-assisted therapy can offer. At the age of 3, the Hoagland’s son, Joe, suffered a stroke while undergoing his third open-heart surgery resulting in severe weakness on the left side of his body. The Hoagland’s eventually brought Joe to a local dolphin swim facility where he interacted with dolphins as a form of physical therapy. Over time, Joe was able to make a full recovery because of a special bond with a dolphin named Fonzie, which inspired Deena and Peter to provide the same opportunity for others.

Performing a routine physical exam on one of the dolphins

In addition to providing therapy swims, Island Dolphin Care hosts approximately 80 students throughout the year from various fields to participate in an introduction to marine mammal medicine course. Students enrolled gain hands-on experience in the veterinary care of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins while learning about their anatomy and behavior. Veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and trainers work directly with the students in small groups to educate the next generation of marine mammal enthusiasts. As an aspiring marine mammal and aquatic-focused veterinarian, this introductory experience proved to be truly invaluable and served as an excellent introduction to marine mammal medicine in a real-life clinical setting.

As a first-year veterinary student, I was very nervous and unsure of my potential for success in this program. I hadn’t completed any advanced clinical or diagnostic courses yet and my hands-on veterinary experience up to that point was limited to domestic terrestrial species. However, I felt reassured upon arriving when I discovered that my classmates, all with different backgrounds and experiences, had never worked with dolphins in a clinical setting either.

Danny entices a dolphin to demonstrate one of its learned behaviors

Every morning, students started their day in the commissary to learn about the feeding protocols. Different fish species were fed in different ratios for nutritional and enrichment purposes and to promote learned behaviors. For example, fatty herring was a large component of most diets because of the high omega-3 fatty acid content. Following this, we would normally make our way to the pool to begin our physical exams. Every day, each student was assigned a different dolphin to conduct a physical exam on. My two favorite dolphins to work with were Sarah and Squirt, the two matriarchs of the pod, because they consistently reminded the trainers that the dolphins were in charge of the relationship. Students were tasked with obtaining relevant history and information from the different trainers prior to their exam and were expected to write full reports with recommended treatments following the exams. We were also charged with evaluating current medications, the purpose for treatment, and recommending changes should any be necessary. I remember my surprise in finding out that female dolphin reproductive physiology is so similar to that of horses, that female dolphins can also take Regumate as a form of birth control while in captivity.

Danny performs an abdominal ultrasound

Throughout the week, we also attended lectures focusing on dolphin digestive and reproductive anatomy, how to perform diagnostic testing procedures, and on the learned behaviors that are critical for both medical procedures and enrichment. This information was then used to perform daily ultrasounds on the dolphins. Outside of a basic introduction as a technician before school and then briefly again in school, I barely had any experience with ultrasonography. Despite my lack of prior training, before my week at Island Dolphin Care was over, I was able to conduct a complete digestive and reproductive ultrasound on a dolphin and write a report on my findings.

Later in the week, we were taught how to draw blood from a dolphin’s ventral superficial fluke vein, make a blood smear, and perform cell counts. We also learned how to evaluate erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test results. This test, which isn’t commonly used in terrestrial veterinary medicine, is a crucial marine mammal diagnostic tool used to detect an inflammatory response by measuring how quickly erythrocytes can settle in a tube overtime.

I’ll never forget the time I spent at Island Dolphin Care because I was able to learn crucial hands-on techniques early in my veterinary education that will help make me a better and more prepared veterinarian. Having learned these skills at a facility like Island Dolphin Care only made the experience more unique and meaningful.


Danny Ruvolo, class of 2022, is a veterinary student originally from Staten Island, New York. Danny received his B.S. in Biology with minors in chemistry and psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University and his M.B.S. from Rutgers University School of Graduate Studies. He is interested in exotic, zoo, and aquarium medicine and aspires to one day treat as many species as he can.