Frank N. Ridgley, DVM
Veterinarians have diverse educations, experiences, and skill sets that can and should be utilized in field conservation and research efforts concerning a wide array of fauna. As advocates for animal welfare and our knowledge of epidemiology, zoonosis, pharmacology, biosecurity, animal behavior, sterile technique, and pathology, we can all play an active role locally, regionally, and internationally for the advancement of research and conservation. We, as a profession, can act to help ensure it is done in a more scientifically sound and humane manner.
Many veterinarians have the enthusiastic desire to work with wildlife but often do not know how to become involved, have the free time to travel to another location, or can be intimidated about engaging in practicing on an unfamiliar species. There are many ways to become involved in conservation medicine at different levels that will provide a practitioner with enriching and satisfying experiences while improving the overall quality of a program or project by their involvement.
One good starting point to explore what is available in your local area is to investigate and reach out to institutes of higher education and satellite campuses, especially those without an associated veterinary school. There are biologists working in the field everywhere from these institutions who may have advanced knowledge of their species of focus but have little to no training on the drugs they may be using, surgeries they are performing, or potential pathogens that may be present. This provides an opportunity for a veterinarian to engage researchers and learn about a particular species more intimately and at the same time offer their services to make the biologists' projects more successful, impactful, and safer for both the wildlife and researchers involved.
It is important to not approach field biologists as you would a client but as a professional colleague if you hope to gain a collaboration. Offering surgical or necropsy services is often a good way to invite them to your practice and allow them to observe your skills and expertise. Answering their questions, pointing out pathology that they may not be aware of or overlooking, and discussing the reasoning behind certain techniques, without sounding critical of theirs, will often create a justified perceived value of your potential contribution to their studies. Conversations during procedures will often lead to both parties realizing gaps for which expansion of the current or new research focuses can arise. These engagements will also result in improved animal welfare for the subject species and better application of techniques by the biologist.
Many state wildlife officers, state and national park biologists, and regional animal control agents are utilizing remote chemical immobilization equipment regularly in their operations. Most receive some training in remote capture techniques for the equipment being used and may be very skillful in its application in the field but often receive no training in the effects of the drugs being utilized, effective monitoring of the animals involved, or know how to appropriately react in a medical emergency. Drug dosages for certain species are often taken from manuals, field journals, or notes from remote capture equipment training courses. A few successful immobilizations by field personnel can lead to a false sense of security and confidence and a perceived safety for the wildlife involved. The wildlife subject is often then released back into the environment, sometimes with no monitoring, and potential resulting complications from the previous procedure may never be appreciated.
As veterinarians, we are well aware of the multitude of risks involved in injectable anesthetic agents being utilized in animals with unknown age, weight, medical history, environmental conditions, preexisting medical conditions, and time of last meal consumption even in a controlled clinical setting. Veterinarians working with captive wildlife usually have the benefit of the control or knowledge of many of these factors, but the conditions in the field often leave all of these parameters unknown and multiply the potential complications that could occur. Immobilizing animals with all of these extenuating circumstances goes against everything that we were taught in medical school and creates a sense of anxiety for even the most seasoned veterinarians. Personnel performing these immobilizations, without the knowledgebase that veterinarians hold, often do not have these factors weighing on their mind and preparations, resources, or knowledge of appropriate action for their possible resulting culmination in the field are usually lacking.
Veterinarians with little to no field experience can play a vital role in the improvement and success of such aforementioned operations. Offering to give a workshop or interactive demonstration, as opposed to a lecture, to such field personnel and explaining all of the factors that you should take into consideration and potential drug effects while performing such immobilizations will often allow the participants to discover for themselves the magnitude of the different aspects involved. After such an experience, this can often open the door for an invitation to accompany personnel into the field. This will allow you to learn and appreciate the skills that the personnel have and observe additional factors they have to consider while at the same time making the venture more successful and safer for all those involved.
Invasive species are an important factor affecting environments all over the world. There are invasive species management groups across the nation that are usually comprised of representatives from major universities, governments, non-profits, tribal nations, large landowners, agricultural groups, and private citizens that work together in formal or informal manners to prioritize and act upon action plans. These groups are especially active and important in areas of major ports, warmer climates, major waterways, and areas of agricultural focus. Their actions often are not only involved in the protection and conservation of wildlife and natural areas but also often human health, agriculture, and major natural resource industries. While many of these groups originally formed to address exotic plants being introduced, they are now incorporating vertebrates, invertebrates, viruses, fungi, and bacteria into their scope of focus.
Veterinarians can play an important role in these groups by providing insight into the effects that these exotic species could hold for wildlife, public health, natural resources, and domestic animals. Risk assessments are made for many of these exotic species to inform the public and policymakers of potential harmful consequences. Viral, fungal, bacterial, and parasitic pathogens that could be carried by these exotic species are often neglected in these risk assessments. The potential effects on native and domestic species are therefore wide open for research opportunities and a gap exists that veterinarians are poised to fill. Although for many of us, plants and invertebrates are not our usual subjects of work. An exotic plant that may have deleterious effects on wildlife through toxicity or gastrointestinal disturbances is often not a consideration in existing risk assessments that veterinarians may be able to aid in evaluating. Introduced invertebrates are often vectors for pathogens. Veterinarians have a current knowledge of many of these or related pathogens and may also provide valuable input into potential emerging zoonotic diseases or possible epidemiological patterns.
If your ambition is to travel abroad to help with conservation efforts but you have no practical field experience with a species a group may be working with, veterinarians with only small animal clinical experience can still play an active and important role in these programs while gaining experience.
Every modern and successful wildlife conservation program has a community component. Involving the local populations and ensuring that they are prospering, healthy, and invested is just as important as trying to protect a habitat or endangered species. If the local community is alienated, struggling to provide for their families, or cannot see the perceived value of what you are trying to conserve, then sustainability of the efforts may be lost in the long term.
Providing free clinics for domestic animals owned or managed by the communities surrounding an area of conservation interest can provide many benefits for a larger program and open up opportunities for your own research or conservation efforts. Providing exams, vaccinations, antiparasitics, and diagnostics on the animals in the surrounding communities often allows for sampling and opportunities to profile potential disease risks to wildlife in areas where there is high wildlife/human interaction or conflict. If you are able to pair your efforts with researchers already operating in an area, it provides the opportunity for comparative testing if they can obtain samples for you. Often this will provide opportunities for you to learn and gain experience with established researchers on their programs if you display an investment in the area and complement their efforts. Helping the community will also help create a greater perceived value of outsider involvement and overall welcoming of the larger project. Building this relationship is crucial in the success of a conservation program if the hope is to possibly change some of the influences causing the decline of the focus area or species.
If traveling abroad is not your desire or can't fit into your busy practice schedule, there are opportunities for conservation medicine in almost everyone's back yard. A little time investigating imperiled species' status in your area, or regional naturalist and biological journals, can reveal disease trends or species declines seen through the unique perspective of a veterinarian that could reveal areas of further needed action. Although, it can prove difficult to obtain permits or permissions to work with federal or state endangered species directly without collaborating with wildlife officials, there are many other unregulated species in need of attention.
Amphibians are a great example of environmental indicators and species for which emerging disease trends are having detrimental impacts across the globe. Many of these affected species have no protective status or are carriers of disease for more imperiled species. Pathogens such as the chytrid fungi, ranavirus, and Perkinsus-like organisms are having impacts and spreading across the U.S. Opportunities and some funding exist for field surveying for these pathogens. Veterinarians are cognizant of biosecurity, proper sampling techniques, and appropriate sample processing. This poises them to be effective and reliable field agents for monitoring disease trends such as these while also not serving to unintentionally spread these agents across habitats. City, county, and state permits and private landowner permissions to gain access to properties are often easy to obtain. Some funding may be obtained through state agencies or small grant programs for the field supplies and sample processing fees while the actual costs involved are relatively small. Contacting state veterinarians for the processing of samples may provide a route for cheap or even free sample analysis. Providing detailed reports of results, even if negative, can provide important environmental information to local and state officials. These contacts that develop as a result of simple projects like this can reveal further opportunities through discussions and begin to develop a reputation for utilizing your skills for follow-up monitoring and involvement in more critically endangered species.
Lastly, one of the most important and impactful conservation, environmental, and animal welfare actions that any veterinarian can play an active role in is the reduction of feral, outdoor, and indoor/outdoor domestic cats. The education of clients and acting as a public advocate for spay/neutering and keeping cats indoors at all times can dramatically reduce the predation of wildlife, competition for food resources, and the spread of communicable diseases in your local area. There are many emotions involved in this issue with passionate, caring supporters of many different strategies to control cat populations. Veterinarians possess the knowledge on disease transmission and animal welfare to act as the most qualified advocates for trying to control cat's impacts on the environment. Campaigns about keeping your cat totally indoors for the health of the individual cat and being responsible environmental stewards could have more significant results than any other initiative. Imagine the combined impact if every veterinary hospital lobby and exam room had educational signage quoting the reduction in lifespan of outdoor cats, disease transmission, and the estimated billions of wild animals preyed upon each year instead of a product placement or framed art piece. Sometimes, in practicing conservation medicine the most powerful change is in our own perspective and those of who we interact.