From Bees to Big Cats at the Special Species Symposium 2019

A banner welcomes students to the Symposium

Conservation, exotics, and wildlife are increasingly popular fields within veterinary medicine and last week Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine hosted the Special Species Symposium to shine a light on various topics within these fields. The Special Species Symposium brought speakers from a variety of backgrounds as well as students from Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Montreal together to discuss zoo, exotic, and wildlife medicine.

Dr. Robin Radcliffe presents about bee health

Topics discussed ranged from utilizing pathology in conservation to antibiotic therapy in pocket pets to marine mammal rehabilitation. Students also had the opportunity to participate in a number of wet labs including invertebrate clinical skills, darting, turtle shell repair, and avian orthopedics. The symposium opened on Saturday with a lecture from Dr. Robin Radcliffe about honey bee health and the developing role of veterinarians in honey bee management. Dr. Radcliffe discussed the agricultural and economic value of bees and the new federal regulations that require veterinarians to prescribe antibiotics for bee colonies. For the rest of the symposium we got to choose which speakers we wanted to listen to. I listened to Dr. Karen Terio’s lecture, where she discussed the importance of pathology in conservation and how it contributes to species health. She finished by advising those aspiring to work in conservation to develop a skill and use that to market themselves.

Dr. Terio was followed by Dr. Peter DiGeronimo, who gave a lecture on marine mammal rehabilitation and how it affects ocean health. He described how rehabilitation can have conservation, scientific, and social benefits. Wildlife rehabilitators have the most contact with free-ranging wildlife, and can act as sentinels to monitor emerging diseases arising in wild populations. This is especially important in species with low population numbers because the individuals that are able to be returned to the wild have even greater impacts on the species as a whole. He emphasized the role that wildlife rehabilitation centers can play in providing data about various species that researchers may not be able to gather. Finally, he stressed the importance of researchers establishing good relationships with rehabilitators to break down the distrust that some have regarding the motives of researchers.

One of the last lectures on Saturday was on the care and conservation of large felids, given by Dr. Michael McEntire. He discussed various aspects of managing large felids in captivity such as the necessary housing requirements,  safety protocols, and restraint techniques. He emphasized the importance of behavioral restraint which involves training animals in certain ways to make them easier to handle and decrease the associated stress. For example, you can train them to present their tails for blood draws or their flanks for injections, and in this way avoid having to anesthetize them for what should be relatively simple procedures. Then Dr. McEntire transitioned to felid diseases such as vitamin A deficiency, myelopathy in cheetahs, and canine distemper virus in lions. Other lectures given on Saturday included an overview of amphibian diagnostics, a session of clinical updates from the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center, and an update on emerging infectious diseases in reptiles.

Demonstration of how to handle invertebrates, such as the tarantula pictured

During the Saturday afternoon lab sessions, I participated in the invertebrate clinical skills lab. The lab was split between arachnids and marine invertebrates. We learned proper handling techniques of arachnids and how to identify common health problems such as dehydration, or how to ensure the tarantula is able to molt appropriately. We also learned ways a clinician could correct these issues or advise an owner in correcting them. Additionally, we were taught proper anesthesia protocols for lobsters and learned some necessary anatomy for horseshoe crabs and various bivalves including oysters and clams.

Attending students from all schools pose after the first day of the symposium

The highlight of Saturday, and the symposium in general, was the keynote speaker Dr. Susan Bartlett. Dr. Bartlett is a veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society and she discussed her path to getting that position. She explained how she dealt with various hurdles on her journey, such as having to reapply to veterinary school after not getting in the first time. She emphasized the importance of persistence and shared an anecdote of how she worked at a zoo scooping poop in order to gain elephant experience. Her determination eventually gave her the opportunity to accompany a research team and travel internationally to study elephants. Additionally, Dr. Bartlett discussed how the TV show, The Zoo, has helped to improve public perception of the Bronx Zoo as it sheds light on the amount of work and care zoo professionals dedicate to their animals.  

Dr. Noha Abou-Madi discusses EEHV

The next day of lectures and labs was just as interesting as the first. It opened with a talk by Katy Payne about whale and elephant communication. She discussed how novel it was to discover in the 1960’s that whales actually sing and the work she has done to analyze these songs. Male whales in the same area sing very similar songs that change every breeding season, and even throughout the season. It is theorized that female whales prefer inventiveness which drives the evolution of the songs over time. Dr. James Morrissey followed with a talk comparing GI stasis and obstruction in rabbits. He taught those in attendance how to identify one versus the other, and the best way to treat these differing conditions. Dr. Lauren Powers of Carolina Veterinary Specialists, went through how to effectively perform a neurological exam on avian patients. She played videos demonstrating different tests and explained what abnormal results might indicate. Finally, Dr. Noha Abou-Madi discussed the tragic occurrence of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) and how it manifested in zoos over 20 years ago. This virus can be devastating and has unfortunately killed a number of baby, mostly Asian, elephants. Dr. Abou-Madi detailed her role in researching and trying to culture EEHV. She also explained the current preemptive protocols in place that attempt to identify when an elephant calf contracts the virus, so treatment can begin before clinical signs emerge. She ended on a message of hope, because even though the virus is still unable to be cultured, there is increasing success in saving calves who contract the virus and research is ongoing to potentially develop a vaccine.

Students are shown the frames from a beekeeper’s hives

In the afternoon, I attended two labs. The first was a tour of the Cornell Bee Labs and the second was an avian orthopedics lab. The tour of the Bee Lab fit in nicely with Dr. Radcliffe’s Saturday lecture. We were able to see more in depth how beekeepers manage their hives and some of the problems that can occur. In the avian orthopedics lab, we learned how to place an intraosseus catheter, and how to set both a humeral and femoral fracture in birds.

Overall, the Special Species Symposium was an incredible opportunity to hear from top professionals in the fields of zoo, exotics, and wildlife medicine. It also provided a unique opportunity to network not just with Cornell students with similar interests, but also with students from other schools.


Cornell hosts the Special Species Symposium every 2 years.  For more information on the 2019 Special Species Symposium, visit the website here.


Climate change and conservation at Special Species Symposium 2017

Dr. Jan Ramer giving her keynote lecture on her work with Gorilla Doctors, conservation medicine, and One Health.

Last week, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine hosted the biennial Special Species Symposium.  Over 100 attendees, including veterinary students, veterinarians and vet school faculty, PhD students, and also members of the general public gathered at Cornell for a weekend of lectures and labs about the biology, medicine, and conservation of “special species.”  This year’s theme was climate change, and its impact on animal biology, life history, and survival.  The event concluded with a banquet at the Lab of Ornithology, a silent auction, and a talk by Dr. Jan Ramer.

A veterinary student practices darting wildlife for sedation, with Dr. Noha Abou-Madi at the 2017 Special Species Symposium.

Veterinary students at the Lab of Ornithology during the 2017 Special Species Symposium banquet.

2017 Special Species Symposium organizers. Top row: Erika First, Angela Jin, Dr. Noha Abou-Madi, Will Fugina. Middle Row: Kayla Woodlock, Eden Stark, Jonah Zitsman. Front row: Caitlin Adams, Kristina Ceres, Isabel Jimenez, Zack Dvornicky-Raymond.

Below is a letter written by the 2017 Special Species Symposium Coordinator, DVM/PhD student Kristina Ceres, and Registration Chair Isabel Jimenez:

The Special Species Symposium began in 1991 as the “Zoo and Wildlife Symposium” at Cornell University.  The leaders of the Cornell Zoo and Wildlife Society (ZAWS) felt there was a need to supplement the veterinary education with material related to wildlife and exotics so that graduates would be more prepared to work with those species. In second issue of the 1991 Veterinary Viewpoints newspaper, the then president of the Zoo and Wildlife Society, Dr. Karen Kearns ’93 said, “The symposium is our way of providing information that is taught in the veterinary medical curriculum. We also hope that interest in the symposium will show there is a need to increase the number of courses on wild and exotic animals offered in the curriculum”.

The SSS is a student-led and faculty-supported symposium, the goal of which is to supplement our veterinary curriculum and provide students from near and far with the opportunity to learn more about these amazing species.  Since 1991, when Dr. Kearns planned the first Special Species Symposium, the Symposium has expanded into a yearly event in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Over the past 26 years, our curriculum at Cornell University has also expanded to include varied coursework and opportunities to explore wildlife, zoo and exotic medicine within the school, hospital, Wildlife Health Center, Wildlife Health Initiative, and abroad through Expanding Horizons and Engaged Cornell.

We chose climate change for the theme for the 2017 Special Species Symposium because we recognize the need for veterinarians to play an important role in helping wildlife, domestic species and humans thrive in a warming climate. Climate change affects all living creatures on Earth; from changing habitats to changing disease transmission patterns, a warming climate provides important and difficult challenges for veterinarians to tackle for years to come. Although the term has become commonplace, climate change is causing very real changes to wildlife and wild spaces, and we want to shed light on what veterinarians and wildlife biologists are doing to intervene. We hope that as the years go on, the SSS will continue to inspire students to pursue careers that involve “special species” and help participants become climate conscious veterinarians.

This symposium would not have been possible without our sponsors, speakers, lab facilitators, volunteers, the previous coordinators of the Special Species Symposium at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, the Cornell Zoo and Wildlife Society executive board, and our wonderful faculty mentor, Dr. Abou-Madi. Thank you for joining us this weekend to celebrate Earth Day, conservation, and a bright future for our planet.


Kristina Ceres
2017 Special Species Symposium Coordinator
DVM/PhD Candidate, Cornell University

Isabel Jimenez
2017 Special Species Symposium Registration Chair
DVM Candidate Class of 2019, Cornell University

Symposium: Register for Special Species Symposium 2017

The logo for the 2017 Special Species Symposium at Cornell University, created by Eden Stark and Isabel Jimenez, DVM students ’19.

The Special Species Symposium is a weekend-long event bringing together students and professionals interested in veterinary medicine and animal management as it relates to so-called “special species,” including zoo animals, wildlife, exotics, and pocket pets.  Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine host the event in alternating years.

This year the theme is climate change. Our program will address how climate change is altering species survival, and what veterinarians are doing and can do to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. We will also present clinical lectures given by Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine clinicians.

Learn more and register for the conference at the Special Species Symposium website.