Primate Conservation in the Pearl of Africa

A group of baboons at Kibale National Park make behavioral observation easy.

My sophomore year of undergrad at Cornell, I applied on a whim to Hunter College’s winter break study abroad program with Dr. Jessica Rothman, a primatologist in the Anthropology Department at Hunter. I have been passionate about wildlife since childhood.  Even as a toddler, I would stare unblinkingly at my safari motion lamp, watching the elephants, giraffes, and lions strut in an endless loop and dreaming of the day that I would see them for myself. When I was admitted into the program, my dream was coming true. 

Tito, a habituated chimpanzee in Kibale National Park, takes advantage of a photo op.

It’s no secret that there is a danger in setting high expectations. In the weeks leading up to my 2018 trip to Uganda, I had ample time to question whether my study abroad experience could possibly live up to my hopes. And I can’t count the number of times I screamed at the television in horror in the week before my trip, as the Weather Channel heralded the arrival of Winter Storm Grayson, the bomb cyclone that slammed the East Coast two days before my departure from JFK Airport. Pre-trip jitters aside, I can say with tremendous gratitude that this trip managed to exceed my already sky high expectations. This experience lent me an educated view of the nuanced complexities of conservation. 

 The course, Tropical Forest Conservation, was primarily geared towards field research, so we spent time learning how to identify flora and fauna in the forest, how to track primates as they moved throughout the forest, and how to best observe them in Kibale National Park. This first leg of the trip allowed me to see a range of species in their natural habitats and to see for myself the ecological diversity present in the park that makes its protection essential. I also gained a better understanding of the unique opportunities and challenges associated with field work. 

The second leg of the trip in Queen Elizabeth Park consisted of game drives, during which we saw lions, elephants, warthogs, hippos, African buffalo, and more. Seeing these species for myself was definitely among my favorite parts of the trip. However, throughout the course, we also heard lectures from various conservation workers in Uganda, from researchers to members of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. I had the chance to hear firsthand about some of the challenges of conservation and to understand the complexities of achieving lasting change. Before this course, I saw the challenges to conservation as being quite simple. I imagined those who would seek to harm animals as movie-style villains, all but swathed in black capes. The narrative is certainly riddled with villainy, but I now know just how many complicating factors there are. Many people in Uganda have complex relationships with their native wildlife because the animals are inadvertently hindering their way of life. A single elephant can consume in one night the crops that would feed a family for a year. Wild animals can at times pose a threat to the livelihoods of local people, so asking them to help conserve their wildlife is more complicated than I had initially thought.

Elephants at Queen Elizabeth National Park enjoy a dip.

I was so intrigued by the challenges to conservation that months after my trip, I interviewed Dr. Colin Chapman, a professor in the Anthropology Department at McGill University, Canada Research Chair in Primate Ecology and Conservation, and the head of the Kibale Monkey Project in Uganda about his conservation and humanitarian work. Dr. Chapman’s extensive research work around the globe has lent him a unique perspective on how to best promote an interest in conservation. He told me that “Almost everywhere the local people want to conserve. There’s a real pride in their forests and their animals. When they don’t conserve, it’s mostly because they feel they don’t have a choice. If you have to cut down a tree to send your children to school, what’s your choice? I think that’s the thing that I’ve found around the world and I find it really positive. If we can provide things that make life a little bit easier, it’s basically going to mean that there’s a big will to conserve.” My own experience in Uganda led me to similar conclusions. Dr. Chapman’s efforts to improve park-people interactions have already yielded positive results. (For more information, I recommend visiting Dr. Chapman’s website: http://www.chapmancolin.com/ ). 

The issues surrounding conservation are so multi-faceted, they will require an equally complex approach to solving them. My trip to Uganda and the conversations that ensued were a tremendous learning experience for me. Through my different conservation and wildlife medicine related experiences, I have met so many different people with different backgrounds, opinions, and skill sets. What unifies them is a passion for conservation and a drive to support animal populations and their environment, and, in doing so, better the human experience. 

 


Colleen Sorge, class of 2024, is a Cornell DVM student from Long Island, NY. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Animal Science from Cornell University in 2020. She has a wide range of interests within the veterinary field, including both small animal and wildlife medicine. 

 

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. 

 

 

Moving Forward with Wildlife

I am truly fascinated by the interconnectedness of our world. One of the reasons that I am so passionate about wildlife medicine and conservation is because it spans the dimensions of human, non-human animal, and environmental wellbeing. I could spend hours avidly discussing all of the intricate connections between wildlife and human health.

The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception to the fact that everything in the world is deeply intertwined. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with my friends and colleagues about issues such as social inequality, healthcare, community, societal values, epidemiology, history, new developments, and the list goes on. These recent current events also reveal an important intersection between human and wildlife health and, in doing so, provide an impetus for us to take responsibility for the wellbeing of wildlife and the environment.

Elephants in Tanzania (Loxodonta africana)

There is a great deal of evidence that suggests that many emerging human diseases, including this current pandemic, are linked to our interactions with wildlife. The CDC estimates that 6 out of every 10 established infections and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infections are from non-human animals. In addition to the current pandemic, past health crises, such as HIV and Ebola, were also linked to the wildlife trade. The goal of this article is not to thoroughly evaluate the evidence for that connection, but rather to discuss its consequences. If you would like to learn more about the relationship between wildlife and emerging human diseases, check out the resources at the end of this article.

If we acknowledge that potentially dangerous emerging diseases can often be linked to our interactions with wildlife, then we must ask — what do we do about it? For the most part, I hear two responses. One — support wildlife health and reduce harmful interactions between humans and other animals. Two — get rid of wildlife. You might guess that I would personally choose option one. I believe that every person has many reasons to do the same.

We rely on wildlife health more than we often acknowledge, or maybe would even like to admit. Wildlife health is imperative for healthy ecosystems and we rely on those ecosystems for life itself. Think big — oxygen, food security, water, climate stability, and more. Healthy ecosystems also provide enormous economic stimulation through massive industries such as transportation, shipping, recreation, and many more. We continue to uncover potential medications from areas that have persistent biodiversity, such as alternatives to opioids and possible new sources of antibiotics. We need healthy ecosystems all over the world to support and enable us to continue living on this planet. Unfortunately, those ecosystems and the inhabiting wildlife species are threatened from many directions.

Lemon shark off of South Caicos, Turks & Caicos Islands (Negaprion brevirostris)

Species that once had the space to exist without interacting with humans are now forced into contact with human communities after their habitats are continuously destroyed and fragmented. Climate change leads to shifting geographic ranges leading to species appearing in new locations around people that have never been exposed to them before. Many species become endangered or extinct every year, all representing possible losses for unforeseen discoveries. Devastating abuse is committed against animals through the wildlife trade all across the world. Those wildlife trade markets also pose a major risk to human health by exposing a wide variety of stressed, immunocompromised animals to each other and humans in tight quarters, sometimes being ingested and in other cases begin transported all across the world. The more we push these animals to the brink, the more at risk we become — to disease, climate instability, food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, and more.

I have good news though. Every single person has the potential to be a conservationist. That means you. Each one of us has our own unique set of perspectives and skills that can be wielded to improve the state of wildlife and ecosystem health, and therefore environmental and human wellbeing across the world. The most important thing to know is that we all have something to offer.

New Zealand fur seal on the South Island of New Zealand (Arctocephalus forsteri)

If you have training, consider how you might apply that knowledge to offer a new solution. Successful communication takes on infinite forms — use your method to spread awareness, organize, and build ideas together. We can communicate through visual art, music, words, writing, and so on. Find your strength and implement it. Be mindful of what you consume and purchase. Turn off your lights. If you are coming from a place of privilege, acknowledge that with a sensitive awareness and use it to make the world a better place for humans and so many other species.

No action is ‘small’. Taking action is a big and mighty step to take, no matter the scale. When you take action, you become a conservationist.

This crisis has exposed just how reliant we are on mutual compassion and consideration for other beings sharing our communities and our planet. By taking action on issues we care about, we can nourish that feeling of unity and respect. We need to nurture a culture of compassion that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all facets of our globe and daily lives. No matter how you decide to contribute to positive change in this world, you should know that it is all deeply and inevitably intertwined. An improvement on one problem supports change for another in direct and indirect ways.

Moose in Alaska (Alces alces)

While you are thinking about how you can contribute to this global kindness, don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Sometimes the constant drive to make a difference can be confusing, complicated, and filled with uncertainty. Sometimes we can inadvertently put large amounts of stress on ourselves or our relationships. Give yourself the space to constantly learn and evolve. Remember — no one is perfect and no one can do everything. We all must work together. While you are being kind to the planet and all of the creatures living on it, always remember to be kind to yourself and those around you.

I hope we learn from the solidarity that has been conjured by this pandemic. I hope we harness it for empowerment, triggering a cascade of positive actions that can change our world for the better. In my experience, taking action for the things that are important to me has been empowering. That empowerment can be a brilliant source of invigorating positive energy, particularly in times when we feel utterly powerless. When we emerge from this crisis, I hope that we can continue to unite and pursue empowerment by taking action for positive change. Let’s change the way we see and engage with each other, our world, and the other animals living within it.

Thank you for your time and thoughts. I sincerely wish health and safety to everyone reading this. I have many resources saved regarding all of the issues mentioned in this short article and I would love to share them with you if you are interested!

—————

Resources to learn more:

A recent, short Scientific American interview about COVID-19, the wildlife trade, and human disease: https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/covid-19-the-wildlife-trade-and-human-disease/

A CDC page explaining zoonotic disease: https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html.

Karesh et al. Wildlife Trade and Global Disease Emergence. Emerging Infectious Diseases; 11 (7) 2005.



Mariah Rayfield Beck, class of 2020, will be starting a small animal rotating internship at Ocean State Veterinary Specialists in Rhode Island this summer. After that, she plans to specialize in wildlife and conservation medicine. She is also an educator that teaches about marine conservation in classes, workshops, and summer camps.

Going Batty: A New Perspective

A Big brown bat with her wing wrapped to stabilize a wing injury

When the average person thinks of a bat, many thoughts may cross their mind, most of them negative. These thoughts and feelings include fear, disgust, and more. People often think of them as “flying rats”, worry that all bats will drink their blood, or try to attack them. In fact, out of over 1,300 bat species, there are only three species of vampire bats that drink blood, while the vast majority of other species are insectivores or frugivores, meaning they eat insects or fruit and nectar. Bats are responsible for an incredible amount of insect control, improving public health by keeping the numbers of disease-carrying bugs, like mosquitoes, down. They also protect crops from insects, eliminating the need for massive amounts of pesticides. Frugivorous bats are important pollinators and seed dispensers, keeping plants and forests healthy. Other people have a fear of rabid bats, and while this can be a concern, just like any other mammal that can be a rabies vector, the vast majority of bats are rabies-free. Like many wild animals, bats are usually more scared of humans than we are of them.

A Hoary bat hangs in its cage

 I’ve learned all of this and more volunteering at Wild Things Sanctuary in Ithaca, NY, working with a variety of local bat species. Some of these species include Little brown bats, Big brown bats, Eastern red bats, and Hoary bats. While I wasn’t one to be disgusted or afraid of bats, I was definitely a little wary the first time I had to grab one out of its cage at Wild Things. Victoria Campbell, the founder, was patient as she instructed me and other volunteers on handling techniques. The majority of the bats that come in are Big brown bats, and even the largest of these can still fit in the palm of your hand. It’s hard to interact so closely with them and not eventually fall in love.

In the outdoor flight cage at Wild Things, bats are able to fly around, catching insects that make their way in, or eating the mealworms provided until they are strong enough to be released. If you visit the flight cage around dusk, you can sometimes see bats flying across, swerving around your head as their echolocation guides them through the enclosure. Sometimes, we turn on the bat monitor to hear the clicks of their echolocation as the bats go about their lives.

The outdoor flight cage at Wild Things Sanctuary

When the weather turns and the harsh Ithaca cold sets in, any bats that are not able to be released at that time are brought inside to be overwintered until the spring or summer when it is warm enough for them again. Many of these bats may hibernate much of the winter away in a room that is kept cold enough to allow them to sleep, much like the caves that these bats would inhabit naturally in the winter. Other bats are kept in heated cages to allow them to heal from injuries or to maintain their metabolism if they require treatments like antibiotics or pain medication. Bats are brought to Wild Things from all over the state. Oftentimes, Victoria will rely on the help of volunteers or other rehabilitators to bring bats part or all the way from more distant locations. 

Victoria Campbell is solely responsible for the care of the bats, and with the help of the occasional volunteer like myself, can take in and rehabilitate over one hundred bats in a year. This number could be even higher if bats were less misunderstood and people were as willing to help them as they were a baby bird or an injured squirrel. 

More than learning about bat species, husbandry, or fun facts I can throw out at a cocktail party, the biggest lesson I have learned working with these animals is just how misunderstood they are. They are not the blood-sucking flying terrors that many make them out to be. They have different personalities and rich social interactions with each other. Sometimes while treating them, they can be very vocal or try to fly away, but you can tell how scared they are to be injured in some unknown environment being handled by a large creature for an unknown reason.

Bats in the Northeast are increasingly threatened by white-nose syndrome. White-nose is a fungus that can grow on hibernating bats in caves and lead to their deaths. It is thought to do this by irritating bats enough to wake them up during hibernation, leading to them burning through their fat stores faster so they are unable to survive through the winter. It can also damage their wings, making flight impossible. Entire populations of bats in some areas have been wiped out by the fungus. In a time when we are facing great threats to wildlife both at home and globally, there is no better time to show some compassion to bats and other equally “undesirable” species. In the end, it benefits both those animals and you!

A group of Big brown bats rests in a “bat house”, a wooden shelter built by Victoria Campbell

To learn more about Wild Things Sanctuary and the work they do, visit their website: http://www.wildthingssanctuary.org/

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.

 

Opinion: The Value of a Common Cottontail

As a profession learned in the causes of animal suffering, one of the most fundamental ethical questions we veterinarians can ask ourselves is, “to what extent do we have a moral obligation to maintain the health of an animal that has no perceivable benefit to society?” To answer this question, I examine the nature of a moral obligation within the context of the veterinary profession.

The moral obligation on the part of the veterinarian is restricted in some ways by the nature of moral obligations. For example, moral obligations are always achievable which means veterinarians are not responsible for the treatment of an animal for which they lack the knowledge or resources to treat. However, if the veterinarian has the ability and a moral obligation to treat the animal, then the animal ought to be treated so long as treatment does not come into conflict with a greater moral obligation.

A veterinarian’s moral obligations towards a Bengal tiger or a Basset Hound should theoretically be the same as a veterinarian’s obligations towards an ordinary bunny. We should not consider endangered status or existence of an owner because the intrinsic value of an individual Bengal, Basset and bunny are (at this point) assumed to be the same.

If the life and health of an animal have an intrinsic value, then by virtue of their training, veterinarians have a moral obligation and responsibility for suffering that accompanies increased knowledge of the causes of suffering. Essentially, the claim that this moral obligation exists is a determination that the value of the healthy animal is greater than the cost in time, money, effort or emotion of caring for the animal. However, the value of the animal may not be enough to warrant this investment.

Animals also have extrinsic value, which is the value an animal has as a means to an end (e.g the charm of a wild animal, the production value of a cow, or the sentimental value of your family’s cat). Extrinsic values can be subjective (e.g. I feel rabbits are adorable and you feel they are garden gnawing goblins) or objective (e.g. the price of a rabbit pelt). The problem with objectivity is that it is much easier to believe in an objective value when we have science-based evidence to support our claim. Proof of an objective intrinsic value is nearly impossible beyond the metaphysical realm. This is problematic because we must prove the value exists in order to reasonably claim we have a moral obligation towards saving an animal with little to no extrinsic value. In other words, to say veterinarians ought to save the aforementioned rabbit, one relies on the premise that an individual rabbit – with no means of paying for its healthcare or value to society – is worth being saved.

Most animal lovers would make the argument that animals have a worth beyond their extrinsic value. That is, most animal lovers will claim that a veterinarian should treat a rhinoceros even if the rhinoceros does not act as a source of income for an individual or organization. However, once we strip an animal of the things that make it fun, exciting, or enjoyable to people (think sewer rat), the obligation that most of us we feel we or others have towards the animal diminishes.

A snag we hit when attempting to defend the intrinsic value of an animal is that even if you could prove its objective existence, the intrinsic value may not be enough to warrant a moral obligation on the part of the veterinarian, or anyone for that matter (e.g. say we could establish that bunnies have an intrinsic value of 10 units but the cost of treatment is worth 100 units, then the health of the bunny is not enough to justify cost of treatment).

Another issue with the veterinarian’s moral obligation to an animal is that the intrinsic value of that animal could be so insignificant that any expenditure would not be justified. This occurs when, despite the intrinsic value, the extrinsic value of an animal is greater when humans act against the animal’s well-being. Unfortunately, for many animals their quantifiable extrinsic value is greater when they are not treated (i.e. a rabbit: with no owner to cover the cost of treatment) or dead (i.e. a rhinoceros: whose remains can be sold for an exorbitant amount of money).

In order to determine if an act ought to be done, we weigh the extrinsic and intrinsic value of acting against not acting:

A Moral Obligation Exists When:

Extrinsic Value + Intrinsic value > Cost (money, time, emotion, etc.)

It occurs often that no extrinsic value exists, and the intrinsic value of the animal does not outweigh saving the animal. The clearest instance of this truth in veterinary medicine is evidenced by our control of parasites wherein we actively kill some animals (fleas, roundworms, etc.) for the benefit of another animal that has a greater extrinsic value to us (tigers, dogs, etc.):

No Moral Obligation Exists to Save the Rabbit (or flea) when:

(no extrinsic value) + Intrinsic Value of the Animal < Cost of Treatment

Despite my desire to argue otherwise, it is difficult to claim veterinarians have a moral obligation to assist animals that do not provide some benefit to mankind. This same notion is reiterated in the Veterinarian’s Oath whereby we swear to “benefit society” through the “relief of animal suffering” as opposed to relieving animal suffering for its own sake. From a conservation point of view, this post is frustrating. From a practical point of view, this means that rather than attempting to convert people to conservation by claiming a bunny should be saved by virtue of its being a being, energy should be directed to revealing the extrinsic value(s) of the bunny.  Success will require application of psychology, patience, economics, empathy, public health, philosophy, and – of course – veterinary medicine.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

María Juarez (Class of 2021) hopes to use comparative reproductive physiology to promote the preservation of North American species and improve the health of livestock. As an admirer of ethics and economics, she hopes augment community conscious conservation strategies after veterinary school.

How Space Technologies are Transforming Wildlife Conservation

The conservation of forests and wildlife is becoming increasingly important around the world due to human interference and the rising number of endangered species.

Currently, many practices involved in the monitoring, tracking and protection of wild animals involve time-consuming, resource heavy processes. New, sustainable solutions for conservation are needed to safeguard wildlife effectively in the current climate.

Projects utilising space technologies such as satellite navigation and imagery and the wireless transmission of data are finding new ways to help protect the health of wild animal populations around the world.

Here, we feature some of the initiatives driving positive change in the sector.


WAMCAM: Monitoring Endangered Species Through AI

The WAMCAM project was originally created to aid researchers studying the native leopard population in Borneo. The process of setting up and checking live animal traps and camera traps in the dense jungle was a long-winded process that didn’t allow for wide scale study.

The solution was the WAMCAM, a battery-powered camera with added AI capabilities to identify the species of animals captured by traps. When an animal triggers a trap, the camera, which is connected to remote devices via satellite, will send a signal to researchers. This allows researchers to only travel through the rainforest when needed and makes tagging and health monitoring more efficient.

Satellite navigation technology can also be used in areas with decreased visibility to locate traps across a wider area for more extensive studies on animal population.

All the information gathered is stored digitally, resulting in clearer, more reliable research data to be shared globally.


Space Applications for Wildlife

This project provides a global service for the monitoring of wildlife habitats and nature around the world. Designed for governments, NGOs, businesses and universities, the project delivers regular wildlife trend reports, wildlife management advice and crisis prevention plans.

The project uses existing data collected by satellites monitoring the earth to provide reports on habitat quality around the world. By comparing historical data from the satellites to current satellite imagery, trends and changes can be detected and plans put in place for the protection of natural habitats.

Light pollution, land ecosystems, marine ecosystems and the quality of animal habitats can all be tracked by this innovative technology. One of the main benefits of this, is that it can be used in any location.


SISMA: Monitoring Domestic and Wild Herds

The SISMA project has been created with herders and agricultural state agencies in mind. One element of this project works to protect the reindeer population in Russia. Due to weak terrestrial communications in Northern Russia, the scheme utilises satellite navigations systems, Earth Observation and satellite imagery to track herds. This technology has the aim of reducing animal loss, preventing disease and managing habitats through remote, accurate monitoring.

The project includes a collar system connected to a mobile app to inform herders of their animals’ location and check for disease via temperature monitoring and alerts.

There is also a ‘disease channel’ for veterinarians to share early warning signs for diseases. The final element is the ‘data centre’ which collects current and historical statistics for further analysis, accessible via cloud services.

Funding Conservation Projects

Finding new, sustainable ways to protect endangered species and monitor the health of wild animals around the world is crucial.

For projects such as these to become more wildly accessible, they need support and funding from governments, local authorities and commercial stakeholders.

These projects have all received essential funding from ESA Business Apps.


ABOUT THE ORGANIZATION:

The European Space Agency (ESA) is an international organisation which organizes European space programs to find out more about the Earth, our solar system and the Universe. ESA is dedicated to encouraging investment in space research and satellite-based technologies and services for the benefit of Europe and the rest of the world.

The European Space Agency: Business Applications (ESA-BA) offers zero-equity funding, access to their network and project management advice to any business looking to use space technologies for new services.

To discover more projects they’ve helped grow, head over to the ESA-BA funding page.

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.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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.

Diseases are Wild! A Zoo Pathology Summer Experience

Pathology is a branch of medicine related to the study of diseases, pathogens, and their effects on the afflicted animals. Pathologists can play an important role in many aspects of animal health, including detecting infectious diseases in farm animals, revealing details about animal abuse cases, and elucidating the origin cell type of a tumor from a biopsy. Some pathologists investigate diseases in wildlife species, many of which are influenced in some manner by anthropogenic factors.

For the past few summers, I have worked as a research assistant for the Zoological Pathology Program, a research and diagnostic laboratory of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. This laboratory mostly operates in conjunction with the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, John G. Shedd Aquarium, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. The Zoological Pathology Program also provides diagnostics for a large number of local, national, and international conservation organizations. The faculty of pathologists in this lab are world-renowned experts in their field and serve as lead pathologists for various Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs and conservation initiatives around the globe. I am interested in the key role that pathology can play in zoo management and wildlife conservation. You can imagine, then, that I was extremely grateful to have the opportunity to work in this lab.

Throughout the three summers during which I worked in this lab, I had a wide variety of responsibilities and experiences. This work involved cataloging their extensive collection of research samples, performing molecular biology research, and observing and assisting with necropsies.

I was involved in two major research projects through the Zoological Pathology Program. One of these projects involved parasitic agents that can infect passerine, or perching, bird species. Detection of this specific infectious agent can play a particularly important part in conservation efforts involving reintroduction of captive birds, specifically the Bali Mynah. Using a diagnostic tool developed by the lab, I worked on a project aimed at determining the shedding patterns of the pathogen. The results will allow us to determine the most efficient and effective protocol for diagnostic sampling.

The other major project was a collaborative study with the Shedd Aquarium’s Microbiome Project. We investigated the efficacy of various aquarium tank disinfection techniques on the maintenance and control of atypical Mycobacteria.  Mycobacteria are common pathogens in aquatic systems and can cause fatal infections in fish. The goal of this research was to determine which disinfection techniques were better at decreasing overall loads of Mycobacterium sp. in the aquarium environment and if those disinfection techniques also altered levels of normal beneficial bacteria within these environments.  These research projects not only improve our understanding the fundamental nature of these pathogens, they also can be used as a guide to inform animal care and prevent sometimes-devastating disease outbreaks in both captive and wild populations.

In addition to those two projects, I was given the opportunity to observe and assist with necropsies of both captive and wild animals. Necropsies are the animal equivalent of forensic autopsies in humans. Although some of these necropsies (particularly those of wildlife animals) involve investigating potential criminal activity, most of the necropsies performed for zoo and wildlife animals aim to uncover infectious or management-related disease. Zoo necropsies serve to help prevent the spread of infectious disease within a zoo population, and to inform management practices to ensure optimal animal health. Information we learn about zoo animals can also inform our understanding of disease in their wild counterparts.  During my time with the Zoological Pathology Program, I participated in necropsies of various captive mammal, bird, reptile, fish, and amphibian species.  I also assisted with necropsies involving long-term seasonal assessment of disease in wild fish and reptile species in various lakes and parks. This type of study can reveal geographical patterns of disease prevalence and can potentially uncover trends associated with anthropogenic changes to the local environment.

It is our duty as animal health professionals to better understand problems to which humans contribute and to minimize their effects on wild populations. I am extremely grateful for my experiences at the Zoological Pathology Program, and I am excited to pursue a career in anatomic pathology!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Carmen Smith is a current Cornell veterinary student (class of 2021) and Cornell undergraduate alumnus from the suburbs of Chicago.  He plans to pursue a career in zoo and wildlife pathology. He is interested in wildlife and public health, and hopes to work at the intersection of disease and conservation.

Dinner Event: Careers in Wildlife Conservation, Zoo, and Exotic Medicine

When: Wednesday, August 29th, 5:00-6:30pm
Where: Lecture Hall 5, the vet school
At this event, you will have the opportunity to hear from and interview some of the world’s top experts, spanning the fields of zoological and exotic medicine, wildlife health policy, and reproduction. Come prepared with questions!
 
Dinner will be served for the first 50 people–RSVP here