Sea otters are one of these keystone species that without them, it is argued that you will see complete ecosystem changes. So because of the food web structure, if you remove a keystone species you will see the destruction or disappearance of kelp forests that are sustaining, just like rain forests, a multitude of other species.
For me, a lot of it was an ethical decision to work with wildlife. I felt that the world is changing, that we're making the environment less and less able to support wildlife species. And it really affected me and I wanted to do something about it.
I was extremely frustrated at the end of my sophomore year at veterinary school and Envirovet kind of gave me that forward push to stick with it. And showed me that there are a variety of ways that my education will allow me to apply veterinary knowledge to wildlife work.
Envirovet also puts you in contact with many professionals who are in the field. And I got connected with an advisor who specializes in parasitology. And she's become involved in research looking at sea otter deaths due to two parasites, Toxoplasma gondii and Sarcocystis neurona that can only be shed by terrestrial animals. The hypothesis right now is that rain water will flow over cat feces containing these parasites and drive the parasite in over land flows into rivers and streams that end up in the ocean.
There are so many different groups of people that come into question with that research; there's the cat owners, there's the people that are running the reserve where the sea otters live, there are the fishermen that are sharing the same near coast waters as where sea otters hunt. And in order for a project to be successful, you're going to need to be in contact with these different groups of people. And you're going to need their support.
The situation that I was exposed to through Envirovet in Kenya was probably my first direct experience with seeing how crucial it is to involve communities with their own local wildlife health problems. There's no reason why the environment shouldn't be shared with species that have been here for perhaps millions of years but you can't come in as outsiders and tell communities how to run their own land if they don't think that what you have to say is important to their own well being.
Enivirovet is a chance to get the wildlife, zoo and conservation medicine experience that we’ve been lacking in our vet school classes. It is really for people that have a focused interest in wildlife, conservation or zoo animal medicine. It was structured really well at White Oak and other places where the lecturers typically came in a night before they were going to lecture and then would stay at least one night after they lectured, so you’d get a good chance to interact with them, talk about their research, talk about your interests or just talk about veterinary medicine in general. The summer after Envirovet I did research with a vet who I met during Envirovet. I applied for a grant to do that and some people who were on that grant committee I had met through Envirovet as well.
These wildlife agencies are starting to realize just how important a role vets can play because we have such a multi-disciplinary program in education that we can really do a lot for public health. I mean, most of these diseases that are emerging, are emerging from wildlife reservoirs, from domestic species and the increased contact. So, they’re starting to realize that we can be a real asset in helping to control these diseases from spreading.
We’re not biologists. We don’t know all the ecosystem stuff that goes on with a lot of these species, but Envirovet is training all these great students to be like proactive on these different topics and to try and do something about it. And that’s what I want to do, you know, research these emerging infectious diseases such as chytrid fungus and iridovirus, which are major topics in amphibian medicine. These frogs are dying off at an alarming rate. And they’re serving as that warning signal to tell us that, you know, something’s coming and we have to do something about it before it’s too late.
Director - National Wildlife Health Center
As a veterinarian, you really think about things in a very methodical manner, and you try to look at the big picture first. You don't try to go straight to where you think the problem is because you may miss something on the periphery. And it's very similar in looking at the environment. You know you look at the air, you look at the water, you look at the water quality and quantity, you see how they're all related and inter related.
I knew that I wanted to move into the public realm in veterinary medicine. And the Envirovet course gets you thinking creatively about the fact that you can take your career in veterinary medicine and design it in any direction, in any shape or form you want to take it. It really gives you the tools to find your way.
Envirovet was really the first chance as veterinarians we got to sit in a room with other veterinarians and veterinary scientists and talk philosophically. Talk about how disease affects wildlife, domestic animals and people. How everything's interconnected. It's not something you really discuss in veterinary school.
Here at the National Wildlife Health Center we may be working in a laboratory situation or a field situation and not always having our hands on live animals but the reason we do it is because we have a passion for wildlife health, a passion for populations of wildlife, not just the individual animal.
In the veterinary field pathologists and epidemiologists think very differently from wildlife biologists and wildlife ecologists. But they can't survive without one another. Otherwise they're studying disease or wildlife in a silo without the bigger picture. Each wildlife disease we study has a connection to the greater good and I think that's what makes studying wildlife disease so fascinating because you're really not just studying the disease and you're not just studying the animal, and you're not just studying the population, you're studying how the environment affects the disease and how the disease affects the environment.
Animals are the window into the health around us. You know, they're the perfect model for studying the environment. They're in their own little laboratory outdoors all the time and we need to pay attention to them because they're trying to tell us something.
I have a friend who works for the state government in California and she says You know, Les, there are some people that want it all and there are some people that have it all, meaning passion'. and she said You choose between material things and emotional things and if you fall into the latter category, maybe you're just not going to make as much money as the other guy but you're going to be a hell of lot happier.
Senior Director for Animal Health - John G. Shedd Aquarium
There are certain animals that you can directly connect with visually when you look them in the eye and certainly the whales are like that. When you look at them, they’re looking back at you. And you know that they’re processing just like you’re processing.
The opportunities that we have here to be so closely connected to the animals and to monitor them so closely provides us with a lot of information about their general health and their general physiology and anatomy. And lot of those things are difficult, very difficult to do in field situations. That’s one way that my day to day clinical responsibilities directly feed into just the knowledge base that will potentially help the management of populations both under human care and in the wild.
I actually sort of stumbled upon Envirovet if you will at that stage in my career when I was tracking in sort of a traditional private practice route. I found myself looking for something else to be able to contribute, something else, maybe even more noble than caring for the individual patient. Envirovet, at that time, was a post graduate educational opportunity, which was very attractive to me, to get exposed to things that I didn’t know of any other way that I was going be able to do that.
The vision of Envirovet is to expand veterinary medicine’s role in management of ecosystem health. Veterinarians can contribute by connecting with other professionals, other subject matter experts and reaching out for contributions that we can make beyond just the management of an individual patient or the management of an individual population. Envirovet was really the first place that I was able to develop some relationships with other individuals and get exposed to, sort of, the breath and scope that veterinarians can contribute to in environmental medicine.
The neat thing about the Shedd as an organization is that it’s not just about display. It is really about providing people that opportunity to be really connected to the animals and to go out and to make a difference.
We cannot echo locate like a bat can or a whale, which is a phenomenal capability that they have. But we can decision make and reason unlike any other animal. That, I think, is what we’re trying to do with a lot of the things like the Aquarium and Envirovet is to instill that sense of responsibility in people to make some decisions that will impact that animal that’s lookin’ back at you.
Executive Director Envirovet Program
Envirovet is a program that we started in 1991, And what we try to do is to show the veterinarian that he can use the same approaches in many ways that the wildlife biologist does to bring his expertise to wildlife issues as well. When I’m trying to describe what a veterinarian offers to the community of wildlife biology or ecology, I always use the analogy of biochemistry and medicine.
Medicine is studying the patient, the intact animal, but you need to know what’s going on with their biochemistry, because that determines everything else. Well, when you have ecologists and wildlife biologists out there, but you don’t have veterinarians out there, it’s like you’re stopping at the level of the whole organism. You need to go all the way down to their biochemistry as well.
The cricket frog was a beautiful species for us to study for a number of reasons. One, it has specific habitat requirements so you can find it in certain types of places. Two, the males call for quite a long time. And we’ve seen a lot of cricket frogs with intersex gonads. This is where instead of having either two ovaries or two testes, sometimes you will have an ovary on one side and a testis on the other. Or you’ll have a ovotestis. This is a testis with developing oocytes right in it.
So, what we did was, we got Illinois cricket frogs from museums, from the Smithsonian to the Los Angeles Museum to the Field Museum in Chicago and Southern Illinois University and Illinois State Natural History Survey. We got them from all over the place. And they were collected from as far back as 1852, and the idea was to look at the gonads of these frogs. And we found that intersex appeared very little from 1852 to 1929, but from 1930 to 1942 or so the number went way up. And from 1946 to 1960 or so, it was way high. And you have to ask yourself what chemicals were out there during that time. What we have is the PCB’s and some of the other chlorinated chemicals that came on the market in the 1930's. And when did we start seeing intersex? In the 1930's. And what happened after World War II? That’s when we got into chlorinated pesticides like DDT. And when did we see the most severe problem of intersex gonads? After DDT was on the market and was used really heavily.
There’s strong evidence from field studies, from historic studies, from museum studies that endocrine disrupters were one of the factors in the decline of the cricket frog.
A friend of mine who’s an epidemiologist in veterinary medicine, she said “you know you don’t have to understand all the molecular biology and all the molecular immunology of the pig’s respiratory system, if when you turn up the fans in the hog house they stop sneezing and coughing.” Sometimes, you have to do the common sense thing. And yeah, it is complex, there’s all this biochemistry, there’s all this microbiology. There’s all these human activities going on. But if you let the system work, you let it be a natural wild place, it will do what it always did, it will control its own diseases. It will clean itself up.