The Zoo Veterinarian's Role in Developing Conservation Medicine Partnerships
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2003

Thomas P. Meehan, DVM

Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield, IL, USA; Conservation Medicine Center of Chicago, Maywood, IL, USA


The new discipline of conservation medicine involves the study of the relationship among animal health, human health and the environment. Emerging infectious diseases, ecosystem health and the role of disease in wildlife population biology are all important aspects of this field of study. The study and application of conservation medicine requires the work of veterinarians, physicians and biologists in a variety of disciplines. Historically there has not been a strong relationship among experts in these different areas. Zoo veterinarians are an exception to this rule. In order to meet the challenge associated with the wide variety of species in our care, zoo veterinarians must apply knowledge from veterinary science, human medicine and wildlife biology. The increasing emphasis on immersion exhibits in park-like settings exposes zoo animals to free-ranging wildlife. The resident wildlife, as well as the millions of human visitors and staff provide many opportunities for the movement of emerging diseases to the animal collection. Studies of the biology of animals in nature must be incorporated into captive husbandry practices in order to maintain animal health.

In situ conservation efforts by many zoos are supported or lead by veterinary staff. Zoo veterinarians must form partnerships with a range of experts in order to practice effectively. Multidisciplinary teams must be formed to address complex medical issues. Zoo veterinarians are skilled in gathering information from disparate sources as well as team building and problem solving. These are the requisite skills for the field of conservation medicine.

The Conservation Medicine Center of Chicago (CMCC) represents a focusing of existing partnerships to meet the challenges of this new discipline. These collaborations evolved into an education and research center. Capitalizing on strong links that already existed among the Brookfield Zoo, the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and the Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine, the CMCC was formed in 1999. The CMCC has endeavored to foster an exchange of expertise and enhanced collaboration to address conservation medicine issues. The CMCC consists of research and education committees under the direction of a steering committee. The research committee funded new studies as well as additional components of ongoing studies. New research included investigations of the molecular genetic ecology of a Midwest focus of Lyme disease, immunology of Callimico goeldii, anthropogenic factors affecting the emergence of largemouth bass virus and the molecular characterization of canine distemper virus isolates from free-ranging raccoons. Additions to ongoing research efforts included multidisciplinary health assessments of felids in Namibia and effects of organochlorine contaminants on bottlenose dolphin health and reproduction. The CMCC has also provided direction and research project approval for a unique program of wildlife disease research funded locally by the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control. These projects have included the development of a model for the spread of raccoon rabies, zoonotic diseases and their relationship to local deer ecology and study of urban coyote biology. The CMCC also helped, through a federally funded grant to develop a molecular diagnostic laboratory. The education committee has developed a course in conservation medicine that is offered on three different university campuses through the use of teleconferencing facilities. The primary challenge of the CMCC has been to develop programs that do not compete with efforts of the partner institutions that may also further the goals of conservation medicine. The intent is to serve as a catalyst to research and education programs that would not have received support in any other way.

There is a clear and growing recognition that science needs to address issues of health from a broader perspective. The role of wildlife and the environment in human public health are being discussed in the scientific and popular press. This attention can serve to benefit, or hinder wildlife and ecosystem conservation. In addition to veterinary staff, zoos must possess expertise in education, development and government affairs. This expertise is vital to the formation of programs addressing conservation medicine. Zoos can formalize partnerships to expand the field of conservation medicine. The CMCC serves as an example of how this can be accomplished without creating a completely independent organization.

Speaker Information
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Thomas P. Meehan, DVM
Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield, IL, USA

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