The goal of Envirovet Summer Institute is to educate, inform, engage and inspire veterinarians of all backgrounds and nationalities to become integral members of teams protecting animal, human and ecosystem health by applying the prioritized, practical, and solution-oriented perspective of medicine to ecosystem health challenges. Started in 1991, Envirovet has now trained more than 440 veterinarians and veterinary students from 47 nations: 25 individuals each year, mostly veterinarians and veterinary students, but also wildlife biologists, ecologists, and environmental educators with a particular interest in health issues and perspectives. Envirovet is an intensive, immersion-style learning experience comprised of lecture, laboratory and field experiences and is organized into three sessions held in Florida, Georgia, and a developing country (currently Tanzania), with students engaged in 60–70 hours each week of instruction for 7 weeks. Led by the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the course is hosted and co-directed by White Oak Conservation Center, St. Catherines Island, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, Tanzania National Parks and the Sokoine University of Agriculture, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (Tanzania). The impact of Envirovet Summer Institute is enduring: each year’s cohort of Envirovet students maintains lifelong ties that form a long-lasting network of like-minded wildlife and ecosystem health professionals. Envirovet is funded each year through a combination of grants, gifts, in-kind contributions and student course fees. Course fees have been a limiting factor for some applicants. Envirovet Summer Institute is establishing itself as a 501(c)3 organization to galvanize and ensure additional brainpower and fundraising capabilities to contribute to the financial stability of and strategic vision for the program, which includes more expansive engagement with the human medical/public health sector.
Veterinary medicine, as a discipline and profession, is fertile ground for creating future environmental leaders. Veterinarians apply a disease prevention and resolution perspective to their professional practice and are inherently skilled and experienced as problem-solvers. The demand for education and training in wildlife and ecosystem health among veterinarians and veterinary students worldwide continues to grow, and while some veterinary schools have developed curricula to address this need, the majority of veterinary schools around the world remain focused on traditional tracks in veterinary medicine and are not serving the unique needs of students who wish to focus their animal health careers on the environment. Furthermore, there are many veterinarians who, having spent several years as practitioners, now wish to explore environmental health as a new career path, but who do not see a clear route for doing so.
The paucity of educational training opportunities in wildlife and ecosystem health is even more apparent for veterinarians and veterinary students in developing countries, where veterinary medical training is basic and emphasizes food animal medicine. In essence, too few educational institutions offer specific programs to facilitate the application of veterinarians’ comparative medicine and problem-solving skills to benefit wildlife and ecosystems. In this situation, the difficulty in knowing when and how to either embark upon or successfully implement environmentally focused careers too often prevents promising veterinarians from realizing their full potential as wildlife and ecosystem health practitioners. Furthermore, veterinarians in developing countries who have been given the responsibility to ensure the health of free-ranging wildlife in protected areas like parks and game reserves may not have extensive training and education in diseases at the domestic animal/wildlife interface, zoonoses, environmental toxicology, land and water management, conservation biology, or other key components of ecosystem health.
Objectives and Methods
The goal of Envirovet Summer Institute is to educate, inform, engage and inspire veterinarians of all backgrounds and nationalities so that they become integral members of teams protecting animal, human and ecosystem health by applying the logical and solution-oriented perspective of medicine to ecosystem health challenges. Each year, Envirovet trains approximately 25 individuals from around the world, mostly veterinarians and veterinary students, but also wildlife biologists, ecologists, and environmental educators with a particular interest in building greater expertise in health issues and perspectives. Envirovet illustrates the many ways by which veterinarians can contribute to the improvement of ecosystem integrity across landscapes and seascapes, with special attention paid to the interface of wild areas with areas intensively managed by humans. The course is designed to guide participants towards matching their aims and resources to an educational plan and career in wildlife and ecosystem health. Because the faculty roster includes specialists from academia, government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector, Envirovet students are exposed to a broad range of perspectives and gain access to outstanding role models.
Envirovet is an intensive, immersion-style learning experience, with students engaged in 60–70 hours each week of instruction for 7 weeks. The course is comprised of lecture, laboratory and field experiences organized into three sessions. Session I is hosted by White Oak Conservation Center, as well as the St. Catherines Island Foundation, and introduces wildlife and ecosystem health as over-arching frameworks for environmental problem-solving. Students are confronted with the realities of global ecosystem degradation, declines in wildlife abundance and distribution, and the full range of threats to biodiversity, and then introduced to a myriad of strategies available for reversing these trends (e.g., flagship species conservation, habitat restoration, fostering robust and transparent governance, etc.). Students acquire knowledge, tools and hands-on experience with a variety of wildlife and ecosystem health topics, including (but not limited to): terrestrial ecology and disease ecology, conservation genetics, wildlife epidemiology, population viability analysis, conservation genetics, theriogenology, ecological risk assessment, diseases of wildlife, animal health implications of translocations, and principles of wildlife telemetry. Interspersed among didactic sessions are hands-on laboratories on wildlife necropsy techniques, radio-tracking of free-ranging animals, wildlife capture, chemical immobilization of wildlife for sampling and health care, and wilderness navigation using global positioning system technologies. Students also learn about natural resource economics, environmental law and policy, grantsmanship, cultural sensitivity, and communications via the media.
Session II is held for 10 days at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft. Pierce, FL. This session introduces students to aquatic (marine and freshwater) animal and ecosystem health, starting with a primer on aquatic ecology, and on the utilization of aquatic biodiversity as an early warning system for environmental contamination. A major focus of this session is on the comparative morphology and physiology of aquatic animals, and on both sources and effects of physical, infectious, and toxic stressors in aquatic ecosystems and animals. Students examine the sources and movements of anthropogenic contaminants through aquatic ecosystems and the ways through which human activities may contribute to the accumulation of toxigenic phytoplankton that directly impact freshwater and marine species. Students participate in field and laboratory exercises examining fish hematology, parasitology and pathology. Amphibian declines, waterfowl diseases, and marine mammal toxicology and infectious diseases are all emphasized. Necropsy exercises focus on multiple species of both aquatic birds and marine mammals available from recent die-off events in the field.
Session III takes place in a developing country: from 2000 to 2002, Envirovet studied in Kenya, in 2003 in Brazil, and in 2004 to 2007 in South Africa. In 2008 and 2009, Envirovet Session III took place in Tanzania and was conducted in close cooperation with Sokoine University of Agriculture and Tanzania National Parks. This 3-week component of Envirovet confronts students with the realities and unique challenges of applying the knowledge and tools gained in Sessions I and II in an international developing country context. Students are introduced to the missions and programs of in-country governmental agencies and academic initiatives focused on environmental health and have the opportunity to work alongside leading experts while visiting a number of field sites where the students participate in ongoing research and environmental monitoring activities. Underlying themes for the developing country unit, no matter where it is held, are: health and conservation at the wildlife/livestock/human interface; challenges with diagnosis, surveillance and control of zoonotic and emerging infectious diseases in developing countries; wildlife health and conservation challenges in protected areas; health and conservation policy at the national and global level; and threats to tropical freshwater and marine ecosystems. Students receive didactic instruction from resident scientists and wildlife managers, in addition to participating in ongoing projects and activities. Students spend time in local communities, learning directly from citizens who are often living with challenges to their food and livelihood security in the face of environmental degradation.
Overall direction of Envirovet Summer Institute is provided by Dr. Val Beasley, Professor of Veterinary Biosciences, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Beasley started Envirovet in 1991 with a focus on aquatic ecosystem health; in 2000 he expanded the scope and breadth of the course by inviting key partners to join him in implementing a broader program. The UC Davis Wildlife Health Center (WHC) now directs Sessions I and III of the course while UIUC in close coordination with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute directs Session II.
Students are recruited via course announcements sent to veterinary schools in the US and abroad and posted in newsletters and on websites of relevant professional organizations. Many prospective students learn of the course from their peers or mentors. Admittance to the course is a competitive process, with interested students being required to submit an application that includes a statement of purpose, a résumé, academic transcripts, and two letters of recommendation. Currently, students pay a fee for the course, which contributes to the overall cost of instruction, travel, food and lodging. These costs are heavily subsidized by grant support for the program, although to date tuition for North American/developed country students remains significant ($7,500 in 2009 by necessity in the face of less than optimal grant support), as the true total investment per student in terms of actual expenditures and in-kind support is approximately $25,000. Ability to pay has been a limiting factor for many prospective applicants, and indeed, international participants are largely sponsored through grants to Envirovet that specifically support the enrollment of veterinarians from developing countries. Ultimately, Envirovet Summer Institute aims to achieve a sufficient and sustained funding base that will allow admittance of students on a needs-blind basis.
Envirovet faculty members are selected based on their capacity for superb and enthusiastic teaching, and for the extent to which they are actively engaged in the subject matter they cover. They serve as role models, not only by imparting their wisdom and enthusiasm, but also by offering real world perspectives and sharing their absolute commitment to their fields. They utilize non-didactic teaching methods frequently, including hands-on field and laboratory exercises and experiences, games, computer simulations, and role-playing. Faculty specialize in a range of fields, from ecological, biomedical and agricultural sciences, to protected area management, game ranching, engineering, economics, ecotourism, sustainable development, and environmental law and policy.
To date, Envirovet has trained 440 individuals from 47 nations, including: The United States, Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Guyana, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Israel, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, and New Zealand.
The effectiveness of Envirovet is gauged in part by the responses of the students, which we obtain through mandatory course evaluations completed at the end of each session. A majority of the students describe Envirovet as a life-changing experience: “This is the best educational experience I have ever had. I feel fortunate to have been exposed to the information and professionals that I was.” “This was an unbelievable experience.” “There are so many ways in which I can be a piece of the conservation puzzle, and I now have tools... and great ideas about how I can fit.” “I had a completely wonderful experience and feel more confident in the direction that I am headed. I learned a lot of science at White Oak, a lot about life in Kenya and of course, a lot about myself at Envirovet.” “I loved the course, and don’t want to go home.” These types of comments are typical and are heard year after year.
More important than student feedback is where alumni go in their careers after their programs of study. Envirovet alumni have gone on to work in the areas of ecological risk assessment and risk management, endangered species recovery, and habitat conservation planning. Some have served in the U.S. Peace Corps, become university professors, and written and edited leading textbooks on conservation medicine. Others are public health epidemiologists, marine mammal veterinarians, and oil spill responders. Many have gone on to obtain master’s and/or doctoral degrees in toxicology, wildlife biology, ecology, epidemiology, and public health. Many Envirovet graduates presently serve in key positions: as Coordinator of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program; Director of Veterinary Health Services for Israel’s Fish Health Laboratory; Head Veterinarian for the Tanzanian National Park System; Director of Conservation Medicine for Wildlife Trust, USA; Public Health Veterinarian of the Zoonotic Disease Program of the Ohio Department of Public Health; Chief of the Communications Center at the U.S. Department of Defense, Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System; Head Field Veterinarian for the California Condor Reintroduction Program in Baja California, Mexico; Principal of the Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute; and Assistant State Public Health Veterinarian for New York.
The impact of Envirovet Summer Institute on participants is enduring. Each year’s cohort of Envirovet students maintains lifelong ties that form a robust network of like-minded wildlife and ecosystem health professionals who are committed to their careers and to supporting their colleagues. Envirovet alumni apply the lessons learned and the tools acquired at Envirovet to their work as veterinarians and wildlife managers, and impart this same knowledge to their colleagues, staff, and students. In this way, Envirovet has a ripple-like effect through the local, national, and regional professional communities of each of our alumni that builds on the philosophy and perspectives of the program.
Long-range goals for Envirovet Summer Institute include financial sustainability: while Envirovet has been taught 15 times since 1991, the course has been funded year-to-year through a combination of grants, gifts, in-kind contributions and student tuition. In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of Envirovet Summer Institute, course leaders met in October 2007 for strategic planning purposes, and elected to establish Envirovet Summer Institute as a 501(c)3 organization to galvanize and ensure additional brainpower and fundraising muscle for the program through the time and energy of a Board of Directors and leaders of partner institutions who can contribute to the financial stability of and strategic vision for the program. As a part of this effort, Envirovet Summer Institute aims to better engage the human medical/public health communities, conceivably becoming a ‘One Health’ course open to veterinary and medical students and professionals alike. A step in this direction was taken last year, when the Board of Directors established an Envirovet Advisory Council comprised of representatives from the public health, agriculture and conservation sectors, to guide course leaders in broadening the scope of Envirovet to better serve ‘One Health’ goals.