biodiversity and disease spread

Tufts alum Kathryn Sulzner promotes improved integration and better training of veterinary professionals into the field of conservation medicine and ecosystem health. She encourages collaboration with wildlife biologists and ecologists to identify newly emerging zoonotic diseases and work together to restore ailing ecosystems. (Kat Sulzner, Katie Sulzner, Kate Sulzner)

If interest and curiosity led you to ecovet, this is probably a story that will ring familiar with a lot of you. Like many veterinary hopefuls, I became devoted to the cause of conservation early on in my childhood thanks largely to my family's Sunday night ritual of poppycock caramel corn and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Feeling that anything was possible at the age of five, I set my sights on becoming an international wildlife veterinarian.

Similar to many aspiring veterinarians, I got an early start on my training. The summer before entering junior high school, I began working weekends at a local veterinary hospital. Along with teenage angst came indecision as I weighed my options between veterinary medicine and field biology. After four years learning the ins and outs of practice work, I felt it was time to branch out. I took a position as camp counselor at The Hitchcock Nature Center, a nearby facility that devoted its time to teaching kids about the environment. In college, I continued on to explore different aspects of conservation work pursuing a variety of animal-related job and training opportunities. While a sophomore, I was hired as an assistant educator at The Philadelphia Zoo and later landed a field position recording across-matraline aggression and reconciliation in rhesus macaques on the island of Cayo Santiago in Puerto Rico. The skills I acquired in Cayo helped me gain entrance to The Gerald Durrell Wildlife Trust Summer School in 1993, all of which culminated in my acceptance to Tufts Veterinary School in 1994.

Each experience exposed me to exciting advancements in conservation work; however, it also highlighted the pitfalls of reintroduction and captive breeding programs of the 80's and 90's. The shift toward a more all-inclusive vision, taking into account the environmental effects of human activity and rapid urbanization, revealed to me the flaws of one-dimensional schemes of wildlife management. Over time, I developed a specific interest in population health and newly emerging zoonoses. I began to appreciate the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations and saw how veterinarians could participate with wildlife biologists, ecologists and others in conservation work.

ROADBLOCKS ALONG THE WAY

In vet school I noticed that while efforts were in effect to incorporate international and wildlife medicine into veterinary studies, the allotment of training devoted to conservation medicine and ecosystem health was still struggling to find its voice in the curriculum. Aside from pursuing a residency in zoo medicine, there were few advanced training options available to graduates looking to work in conservation; this was further compounded by the lack of community networking and counseling services on hand for students and graduates pursuing careers in conservation medicine. Not deterred by this, I decided after graduation that there would be future benefits in acquiring a solid foundation in private practice work while plotting my next career move.

I continued to stay involved in wildlife medicine through lecture circuits, continuing education programs, and volunteer work at the San Francisco Zoo and local wildlife centers. In the summer of 2005, I attended a veterinary training program in Nelspruit South Africa led by wildlife veterinarian, Cobus Raath. I was surrounded by a fresh-faced group of veterinary students, eager to work in the field of wildlife medicine. While their enthusiasm was infectious, it also reminded me of the frustrations that my colleagues and I had faced since graduation as we tried to make a smooth transition from practice work into conservation medicine.

When I returned to the US, I became increasingly aware of other veterinarians, technicians, and students who felt lost, as I did, amidst the vagueness surrounding training, preparation, and the exact role of veterinarians in conservation work. About this same time, I set out to better educate myself on current trends in the field and began reading articles in JAVMA, talking to veterinary faculty members, and soaking up books on topics of conservation biology, international veterinary medicine, and ecosystem health. A consistent trend that I noted was a call for the profession to increase its involvement in the public sphere. Subsequently, many within the veterinary community are now acknowledging our responsibility as a profession to expand our efforts more universally addressing threats of emerging zoonoses and loss of biodiversity.

SOLUTIONS ON THE HORIZON

There is momentum gathering in academic circles emphasizing the need for veterinary professionals to diversify their work and refocus on the public sector, particularly in areas of research, public health, conservation, and emerging disease surveillance. Many veterinary boards are hard at work, identifying ways to encourage and better prepare veterinarians for careers outside of private practice. A report put out by the University of California Health Sciences Committee in November of 2004 raised concern at the shrinking number of veterinarians in the public health sector and underscored the increasingly vital role that veterinarians will play in the control of zoonotic disease transmission. Equally emphasized was the projected growth of veterinary personnel in wildlife health due to the mounting need for "preventative and restorative services" in the face of human encroachment and ecological woes.

While all of this is good news, such information still remains largely on the periphery of mainstream veterinary discussions. If I have learned anything since graduating from vet school, it is that there is a mutual desire for the creation of an online community resource, the sole purpose of which is to provide guidance and careful evaluation of advanced training opportunities in conservation medicine. Ecovet was born out of a desire to bring all of this to the forefront and foster a comfortable environment where members of the veterinary community and others can freely and collectively explore untapped opportunities for veterinary professionals in conservation work and begin to create a stronger partnership with wildlife biologists, educators, activists, and other disciplines working together to save the earth's biodiversity.