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Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Colin M. Gillin, D.V.M.
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OCW Zoological Medicine 2008
Free-ranging Wildlife Medicine (2009)
C. Gillin, DVM
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University

1. Free-ranging Wildlife

  • Are they really "free"?

  • Managing "islands"

  • Human population explosion - suburban sprawl - human encroachment

2. Wildlife management circumstances

  • State and federal lands (parks, refuges, etc.) - animals don't know the boundaries!

  • Private lands

  • Pest management, Animal damage control

  • Disease surveillance

  • Public health concerns

  • Population control

3. Role of the veterinarian

  • Local input (private) - wildlife rehabilitation, community support, wildlife/domestic interactions

  • State veterinarians (public) - wildlife specialty - administrative, management, disease surveillance and intervention roles

  • Animal health - pathology, epidemiology/disease surveillance, disaster management

  • Policy development/input

  • Research

4. Target Issues in Free-ranging Wildlife Medicine

  • Funding for veterinary services

  • Administrative bureaucracy (public veterinarians)

  • Variability of political climate

  • Interaction with people and domestic animals

5. Wildlife Veterinary Opportunities: Some Examples

5.1. Non-Government Opportunities

5.1.1. Wildlife Rehabilitation

Most wildlife rehabilitation in this country is done by volunteers from many walks of life with varying levels of experience and expertise. In most states, wildlife rehabilitators are licensed and require a "veterinarian-of-record" to maintain that license. Most of these rehabilitators need their veterinarian to obtain drugs for treatment, euthanasia solution and also for advanced veterinary care required by some of their patients. In Massachusetts, a veterinarian can provide emergency care to wildlife without a special permit. Veterinarians that regularly provide care for wildlife do need to obtain a permit from the Commonwealth . In other States, be sure to check for specific local State regulations.


There are several wildlife rehabilitation centers around the country with private funding and employing full-time veterinarians. Some examples are:

Support organizations that involve veterinarians include:

5.1.2. Turner Endangered Species Foundation

Employees: 1 Staff veterinarian, a veterinary technologist and 13 biologists

2000-2001 Projects

  • working as the only private permittee of the US Fish and Wildlife Service on wolf recovery,

  • managing one of the most productive black-footed ferret breeding facilities in North America,

  • managing the most successful population of reintroduced desert bighorn sheep in New Mexico,

  • managing 1 of only 3 pre-release facilities for the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program,

  • conducting the only successful attempt by any organization to restore a population of red-cockaded woodpeckers where no founder population existed,

  • engaging in the largest ongoing effort of any organization to translocate and expand prairie dog populations,

  • serving as a primary catalyst for a bi-national campaign to conserve migratory pollinators along a 2,500-mile migration corridor from the southwestern U.S. to southern Mexico,

  • conducting the largest private effort to restore the native longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem in the southeast,

  • producing the most extensive study ever to assess feasibility of reintroducing swift fox, and

  • assembling and leading the most serious effort to evaluate the restoration potential for wolves in the Southern Rockies

5.1.3. Wildlife Conservation Society/Hornocker Wildlife Foundation

Throughout this past century, WCS has supported pioneering field studies of key species such as bighorn sheep, black-footed ferrets, grizzly bears, mountain lions and bald eagles, and helped create more than 30 U.S. parks and reserves, including the Arctic national Wildlife Refuge, and the Olympic and Wind Cave National Parks. As it enters its second century, WCS continues to build on this North American tradition by informing and inspiring people to care about native wildlife and ecosystems.

After concentrating most of its efforts in Africa, Asia and Latin America for 25 years, WCS renewed its North America program in 1994, with the idea that its cooperative, information- based approach could help improve conservation on this continent. In North America, WCS seeks to provide technical assistance and biological expertise to local groups and agencies that lack the resources to tackle conservation dilemmas. WCS's strategy is to support comprehensive field studies that gather information on wildlife needs and then resolve key conservation problems by working with a broad array of stakeholders, including local community members, conservation groups, regulatory agencies and commercial interests.

WCS operates more than 50 field projects in key areas in North America. In the western U.S., we work on conservation issues affecting the region's vast public lands. In the northeast WCS concentrates on wildlife conservation in public and private forests. While in the tri-state New York metropolitan region, WCS's Metropolitan Conservation Alliance seeks to maintain biodiversity at the suburban-rural frontier.

The Field Veterinary Program, created by the Wildlife Conservation Society, augments ongoing WCS efforts by dealing with wildlife health issues as well as providing the information essential to effective conservation planning. Applying proficient veterinary skills in the field gives animals a fighting chance in their race for survival. Monitoring wildlife health trends firsthand increases the field vet's reaction time towards counteracting any wildlife health crises that may arise and threaten a species.

Training conservation workers worldwide is integral to saving wildlife populations. Technological advancements have been made and continue to be developed in the area of research and conservation management. One of the greatest feats accomplished by the Field Veterinary Program is working with governments worldwide to establish parks and reserves which enhance ecosystem restoration, and ensure that species are protected from human threats.

Based at WCS's Wildlife Health Sciences Center, a state-of-the-art medical and research facility, a wide range of biological and professional resources is available to the Field Veterinary Program through WCS's diverse operations at home and abroad.

Ongoing field projects :

  • Gorilla Health

  • Sea Turtle Health

  • Forest Elephant Tracking

  • Sea birds, sea lions, and seals

  • Bolivia Projects

  • WCS/HWF Wolverine Ecology Project

5.1.4. Wildlife Trust

Wildlife Trust conserves threatened wild species and their habitats in partnership with local scientists and educators around the world – management recommendations, wildlife health evaluations, and species restoration.

An inevitable consequence of the close human/wildlife habitat interface that exists in degraded and fragmented habitat is the increased transmission of disease among species. Wildlife Trust is a pioneer in explaining the link between wildlife species health and the health of ecosystems and people. For example, habitat damage has increased stress in living things, causing greater susceptibility to disease across species and geographic boundaries.

Conservation Medicine Program Projects:

  • Examine the patterns of disease emergence and transmission across identified keystone species in stressed or fragmented terrestrial and coastal marine habitats.

  • Develop protocols for long-term monitoring of health of keystone species.

  • Provide technical expertise to Wildlife Trust projects in the event of epizootics and epidemics of species at risk.

  • Conduct training in conservation medicine to local wildlife professionals.

  • Communicate the importance of health issues in ecosystem and species conservation to communities living in Wildlife Trust project areas.

  • Marine Sea Turtle Conservation Medicine Project

  • Marine Animal Stranding Network Project

  • Wildlife Health of North American Migratory Waterfowl Project

  • Marine Sentinel Species Project

5.2. State Wildlife Veterinarians

5.2.1. Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Disease Laboratory

The purpose of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Disease Laboratory is to monitor diseases in wildlife populations of Wyoming and the surrounding states, as well as forensic services for wildlife taken illegally and by poisoning. Most laboratory analyses are conducted in cooperation with USDA/APHIS and the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, which provides the expertise in pathology, virology, serology, bacteriology, parasitology and electron microscopy. The primary role of the Wildlife Disease Laboratory is the diagnosis and surveillance of brucellosis, chronic wasting disease, plague and tularemia. Diagnostic tests available to the public with a suspect wildlife disease problem are: plague and tularemia serology (serum), brucella culture (tissue), carcass safety for consumption and general disease diagnosis (carcass).

Laboratory Functions

  • Diagnosing and monitoring the occurrence of diseases in wildlife and where appropriate, making management recommendations.

  • Law Enforcement/Forensics - Cases involving big and trophy game, predators, waterfowl, endangered species, and exotic animals are necropsied to determine cause of death.

  • Wildlife disease monitoring for research projects concerning black-footed ferret reintroduction areas, brucellosis vaccine research, causes of mortality in the Wyoming toad and black-footed ferret, and monitoring brucellosis in free-ranging elk. Sybille Wildlife Research and Conservation Education Unit

Holding pens: law enforcement investigations

Disease and nutritional research

Endangered species propagation

Veterinary Services Projects:

  • Black-footed Ferret

  • Brucellosis controversy

  • Chronic Wasting Disease

  • Lungworm Pneumonia Outbreaks

5.2.2. Michigan Department of Natural Resources -Rose Lake Wildlife Disease Laboratory

The lab is responsible for monitoring the health and well-being of Michigan's wildlife. To meet this responsibility, lab personnel are involved in a variety of activities. Wildlife specimens are submitted by the public and Wildlife Division personnel for cause of death determination. We are involved annually with deer, bear, and furbearer harvest and research surveys, Bovine Tuberculosis surveys on deer and carnivores, and assisting researchers. We work closely with State and Federal agencies that are involved with the state's wildlife. Lab personnel consist of two Secretaries, two Wildlife Veterinarians, a Wildlife Biologist (Pathologist), two Laboratory Scientists, three Laboratory Technicians, a part-time Wildlife Technician, and seasonal State Workers.

5.3. Federal Wildlife Veterinarians

5.3.1. National Wildlife Health Center

Each year, wildlife managers across the United States are confronted with sick and dead animals, frequently on a large scale. Minimizing such wildlife losses depends on effective technical support, knowledgeable guidance, and timely intervention. The National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) mission is to provide information, technical assistance, and research on national and international wildlife health issues. To fulfill the NWHC mission, the Center monitors disease and assesses the impact of disease on wildlife populations; defines ecological relationships leading to the occurrence of disease; transfers technology for disease prevention and control; and provides guidance, training and on-site assistance for reducing wildlife losses when outbreaks occur.

The NWHC is located in Madison, Wisconsin. The modern buildings and laboratories are designed exclusively for combating wildlife diseases. Due to the mobility of wildlife and the potential for spread of disease, timely and accurate determination of causes of wildlife illness and death is a prerequisite to achieving effective disease control and prevention. National wildlife refuge personnel, law enforcement agents, state conservation agency biologists, university-affiliated scientists and others send wildlife carcasses and tissue samples to the NWHC for diagnostic examination. The Center has a staff of over seventy scientists and support personnel who offer services and conduct activities to prevent and control wildlife diseases. The Center had a major role in conducting field studies and providing expert testimony that resulted in the conversion to nontoxic shot for hunting waterfowl in the United States.

Center field investigations provide immediate technical assistance to field personnel who find sick and dead wildlife. NWHC personnel provide instructions on collection, preservation, and shipment of specimens for laboratory examination and will travel to problem areas to conduct field investigations and assist local personnel with disease control operations. They respond to catastrophic events, such as major die-offs, that threaten the health of wildlife populations. Assistance is provided for disease problems that involve migratory birds, endangered species and other warm-blooded wildlife that live on Department of Interior (DOI) lands throughout the United States.

Center staff also provide expertise regarding animal welfare regulations and their application to wildlife. Technical assistance regarding animal welfare matters is often provided to wildlife biologists and others. Preparation of videotapes, publications, consultations and training are activities commonly carried out by the Center in the animal welfare arena.

NWHC Activities include:

  • Studies of diseases affecting endangered species.

  • Development of disease diagnosis and control techniques.

  • Evaluation of the frequency, geographic distribution, and species affected by specific pathogens.

  • Evaluation of the impacts of various disease agents on wildlife population dynamics.

  • Assessment of the interactions between environmental contaminants and infectious agents.

  • Laboratory diagnosis of wildlife mortality.

  • Environmental profiles of wetlands and the eruption, perpetuation, and maintenance of avian botulism and avian cholera.

  • Investigations of avian tuberculosis in whooping cranes.

  • Ecology of inclusion body disease of cranes.

  • Technical assistance on wildlife health issues through workshops and seminars both at the Center and at other locations nationally and internationally.

  • In-house training for senior veterinary students, wildlife biologists, and foreign scientists interested in wildlife diseases.

  • International scientific activities with Russian counterparts for the study of wildlife diseases of mutual interest; with the Wildlife Institute of India in developing faculty expertise in wildlife disease; and with an Egyptian veterinarian who spent one and one half years at the Center training to assist development of wildlife health capabilities in Egypt.

  • Production of a videotape on lead poisoning in migratory birds that is widely used by the national and international conservation community.

  • Technical consultations with government scientists and officials in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Denmark, France, Russia, and England regarding lead poisoning in wild birds.

  • Evaluation of wildlife disease risks associated with New Zealand's endangered species program.

  • Production of a book-length field guide on wildlife disease and videotapes on special techniques underscores the Center's goal of relating technical information and concepts about wildlife diseases in a practical and relevant format.

Current Issues:

  • West Nile Virus

  • Foot and Mouth Disease

  • Amphibian Declines and Malformations

  • Emerging Diseases in Wildlife

5.3.2. National Park Service

The National Park System encompasses approximately 83.6 million acres, the largest area is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska. At 13,200,000 acres it is 16.3 percent of the entire system. The smallest unit in the system is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, Pennsylvania, at 0.02 of an acre. Of the 380 parks, monuments, preserves and historic sites, the NPS employs one veterinarian, stationed in Ft. Collins, Colorado.

5.3.3. Parks Canada

Stationed in Banff National Park, Alberta, Parks Canada employs one contract, 6-month veterinarian each year. Several of the health management projects currently being conducted include:

  • Elk and cervid herpes virus and IBR

  • Elk and liver fluke infections

  • Johne's disease in park Wildlife

  • Surveillance of wildlife for emerging diseases including brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, trichinosis, etc.

  • Brucellosis, tuberculosis, Mycobacterium paratuberculosis, and anthrax outbreaks in Wood Buffalo National Park

6. Support resources and continuing education

6.1. Professional organizations

Association of Avian Veterinarians

Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians

American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians

American Association of Zoo Veterinarians

European Wildlife Disease Association

Wildlife Disease Association

6.2. Continuing education resources

Annual conferences of professional organizations above

North American Veterinary Conference, Western States Veterinary Conference, etc.

6.3. Formalized Training/Board Certification

6.3.1. Internships and Residencies (selected)

There are very few exclusive wildlife internships or residencies. These are listed below. Many of the academic zoological medicine residencies and internships include a component of free-ranging wildlife medicine.

6.3.2. Board Certification

American College of Zoo Veterinarians - Wildlife

7. References and Resources

7.1. Texts and articles

Aguirre, A. Alonso and Edward E. Starkey. Wildlife disease in U.S. National Parks: historical and co-evolutionary perspectives. Conservation Biology , 8 (3), pp. 654-661.

Friend, M. Ed. Field Guide to Wildlife Diseases. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service / Resource Publication 167

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. Principles of Wildlife Rehabilitation : the essential guide for novice and experienced rehabilitators. 1997.

Noninfectious Diseases of Wildlife . 2nd ed. ed. by Anne Fairbrother, Louis N. Locke, and Gerald L. Hoff. Iowa State University Press, 1996.

Wild Neighbors : the humane approach to living with wildlife. Ed. By John Hadidian, Guy R. Hodge, John W. Grandy. The Humane Society of the United States, Washington, D.C. 1997.

7.2. Web sites

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council

Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study

Wildlife Disease Association

Wildlife Center of Virginia

The Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory

Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association

European Wildlife Disease Association

Turner Endangered Species Fund

Wildlife Conservation Society

Wyoming Game and Fish Department

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

National Biological Information Infrastructure

Tufts Center for Conservation Medicine