Welcome to the front line – it is a dangerous place to be, but you are not by any means unarmed. Whether you’re already a veterinarian or on track to becoming one, you are in the process of perfecting the skill set you will need to confront the assaults that threaten Life here on Earth. And I use the word “life” intentionally. You are neither just a dog doctor nor just a cow doctor. You are not a human doctor, either. So what are you, then?
Put simply, you are a special breed of scientific professional who swore, or will swear, an oath to protect the well-being of three critical things: animals, people, and the environments they inhabit. Your entire career as a veterinarian will be to protect Life on this planet, plain and simple. Fortunately, you will not be in this battle alone; in fact, for your entire career, you will seek clinical advice from your colleagues, consult new scientific literature, learn of advancements in food systems from producers, and communicate with experts in areas of study you never knew existed. Together, your team will identify the problems, make hypotheses, and find solutions. However, to uphold and protect the health of all, you will need to become an expert in one very important skill – collaboration.
This past November, two seemingly unrelated clubs, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) and the Zoo and Wildlife Society (ZAWS) here at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine did just that, and co-hosted Dr. Alfonso Torres, former director of the USDA’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center, who lectured on the topic of Transboundary Diseases and Wildlife. Our organizations wanted to epitomize the collaboration we seek to inspire between veterinary medicine and outside disciplines, while also presenting an exceptionally timely lecture as our national food production continues to become more interconnected with the larger global arena. In his talk, Dr. Torres commented on several diseases of interest to national and international food security. However, he put special emphasis on the impact of diseases like Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), African Swine Fever and Classical Swine Fever, as well as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), which pose the most significant threats to our nation’s food supply and economy. Aside from tens of billions of dollars in direct losses that could result from reduced animal production from these diseases, substantial indirect costs could be incurred from various control measures, loss of export markets, and plummeting feed prices.
Dr. Torres rounded off his lecture on a lighter note, by addressing how we can prepare for and prevent diseases that negatively impact national and international food security. His primary suggestion: increasing collaboration between veterinary medicine and other disciplines. Such interdisciplinary collaborations are becoming essential for effective conflict resolution – with respect to food security, public health, as well as wildlife and habitat conservation.
For example, the African continent is expected by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to increase its population by 100%, over 1.2 billion people, by 2050. Concurrently, demand for beef and milk products is expected to grow between 260 and 399%. Sustaining these human and animal populations will require tremendous increases in land and water use in an area considered by the World Bank to be the most vulnerable and least capable to handle the effects of climate change, including droughts, flooding, and subsequent desertification. For the human population, increasing competition for food, water, and land combined with existing social tensions could lead to further humanitarian crises for the continent. For Africa’s endangered large mammal species such as the Hirola, Black and White Rhino, and Grévy’s Zebra, these next 30 years could spell complete disaster, as the last remaining pockets of untouched habitat are converted or destroyed by humans in order to enhance food production. It is imperative that leaders in veterinary medicine, policy, environmental science, food production and other disciplines have shared and frank discussions about the state of our planet and what challenges they foresee. By doing so, we will hopefully translate our shared concerns into meaningful policy changes and action plans that are in the best interest of animals, people, and the environment.
So in short, you as a veterinarian will need to stand guard for these coming years, as they will bring a myriad of challenges. Their forms will be endless – hunger, climate change, antibiotic resistance, overpopulation, pandemic disease, and war are just a few. The fact of the matter is that you will be there, and our world will need you. At the end of the day, however, it will not be individual knowledge that will save this planet. Instead, it will be the collective wisdom of many minds across this Pale Blue Dot, working together as a team towards one common objective – to protect Life. So my challenge for you is a simple one. Wherever you are and whatever your specialty, push yourself to collaborate. It will frustrate you; it will humble you; but, most importantly, it will inspire you. And through that inspiration, I hope you come to appreciate that this world is a remarkable one – and in fact, our only one. It needs our help now more than ever, and we must work together, as one, to protect it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
J Hunter Reed is a second-year veterinary and Master’s of Public Health student from Minnetrista, Minnesota. In 2016, he graduated from Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences where he majored in both Animal Science and Biology. Hunter now serves on the board of the Cornell Chapter of AABP and is primarily interested in food security, transboundary and zoonotic disease, as well as livestock sustainability.
My name is Eric Teplitz and I am a rising 2nd year veterinary student at Cornell. With an interest in infectious disease epidemiology, I participated in the Expanding Horizons Program with the goal of gaining applied research experience in the field. I established my research project with the Silent Heroes Foundation and the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust in Malawi, an organization that promotes wildlife rescue & research, advocacy, and conservation education. Illegal bushmeat and pet trading are prevalent practices in Malawi that are destructive to ecological health and biodiversity. The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre was established as a sanctuary for animals subjected to such crimes and aims to rehabilitate and release them into the wild.
I have been at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre for the past seven weeks, and I have another two weeks before returning home. In my free time, I’ve had several opportunities to travel, visiting South Luangwa National Park in Zambia and Liwonde National Park in Malawi. I’ve also had the unique experience of scuba diving in Lake Malawi, which has a greater diversity of fish species than any other lake on Earth!
My research objective is to provide additional information for the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s primate release program. Release strategies of captive wildlife are based on several factors that determine if, when, and how an animal will be reintroduced. One such factor is the risk of disease transmission from reintroduced animals to wildlife populations and humans, as failure to evaluate these risks can lead to unintended disease communication.
Salmonella and Shigella are groups of bacteria that colonize the intestine and cause diarrhea and inflammation of the gut lining. They are spread via fecal-oral transmission – the bacteria are shed in the feces and subsequently ingested by another animal. These bacteria infect nonhuman primates and humans globally and are therefore critically important for both wildlife conservation and public health. Unfortunately, Salmonella and Shigella are difficult to treat medically, and consequently studying the patterns of shedding is important for informing disease management strategies through an understanding of transmission dynamics. At the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, I am studying the shedding patterns of Salmonella and Shigella in primates.
The primary objective of my project is to identify temporal shedding patterns of Salmonella and Shigella as well as risk factors that affect shedding. Some examples include stress, age, sex, body condition, patient history, and concurrent parasitic infection. I designed a sampling schedule upon arrival, and currently I am collecting fecal samples for bacterial culture and diagnosing parasitic infections via fecal flotation. I have been evaluating stress through behavioral analysis, monitoring for behaviors that characteristically indicate stress in primates (such as pacing, self-grooming, and excessive scratching).
The project involves components of microbiology, primatology, and epidemiology, and the interdisciplinary expertise I gained during my first year of veterinary school has allowed me to conduct my research successfully. Designing and implementing an epidemiology study has been a useful learning experience as I find ways to adapt to logistical and technical constraints while in Malawi. Throughout the past several weeks, I have become more familiar with the procedures for primate integrations and reintroductions, which has guided my experimental design so that I can provide the most important information. In my remaining two weeks in Lilongwe, I will do my best to produce useful data!