Even though advances in veterinary preventive and clinical health care have extended the captive lifespan of so many animals, it’s kind of touching to hear that an animal ambassador that brought so much joy to visitors and staff, passed on to bear heaven in his sleep. We all would like to go as peacefully as this magnificent animal did. I don’t know the individual bear, but when you consider what awaits us as humans and animals alike as we enter the fourth quarter (so elegant) , we as humans at least, recognize, hopefully, how lucky we are to live in an era where our quality of life is likely to be sustained beyond what nature ever intended. Today, zoo medicine is much about geriatric veterinary medicine and it’s most impressive how zoos delicately handle issues concerning aging collections. I don’t have much to add except that I may cross -post this on the The Bear Keepers Forum.
When I first embarked on doctoral research study it was clear that climate change had a great impact on amphibian decline as did disease along with pollutants (toxicants). Although I eventually transferred from a program that would allow me to investigate such issues, the topic will continue to warrants a lot of attention. I wanted to do work on a project that had interested me as a zoo keeper and one that I thought, at least at the time would be very applicable to carnivore preventive medicine. I still found the topic of examining synergistic effects of pathogens, global warming, and toxicants on herpetile health to be really interesting, but creating a model to study these factors seemed a lot more difficult when I set out to mimic nature and modify it in a lab. In fact, this post may dissuade or encourage you to pursue an advanced degree. In graduate school they don’t spoon feed you information and many advisors work with students on projects that are beyond their scope of expertise. This is not at all uncommon. I came in with some background studying helminth parasites in plethodontid salamanders (don’t get too excited now) and was hoping to develop a related project with ambystomatid salamanders (e.g., tiger salamanders, spotted salamanders, etc.). The one thing about mole salamanders is that your field season is abbreviated as in a couple of days long and if you miss the mass migration to vernal pools where mole salamanders breed, you have to wait another season. Migration is triggered by several factors (i.e., ground and ambient temperatures, humidity, barometric pressure, and light/darkness). Hence, the movement of these explosive breeders is somewhat predictable to the seasoned herpetologist, but expect the unexpected. The second objective was to find a model pathogen that I could use to infect a laboratory population of wild caught spotted salamanders and then introduce variations in the photoperiod through the use of artificial light. Finally, I was planning to find some pollutant that was a known toxicant. Not too long ago an interesting study had been published on the effects of toxicants on salamander spot patterns. If you didn’t know spotted salamanders normally have two symmetrical rows of dorsal yellow spots on a dark dorsum (back), you do now. Stress from toxins or lack of water due to warming temperatures are considered potential etiologies for these aberrant dorsal spot patterns. This may be a subtle anomaly compared to additional limbs or something more bizarre, but it’s a great indicator of ecosystem health. Anyway, I established that I would select malaria, a vector-borne disease which effects non-human animals including species of mammals, and birds as well as amphibians. I was just ready to go out and collect specimens when the opportunity to work on a zoo project was made available. As much as it sounds “insensitive” that scientists continue to conduct laboratory studies that require sacrificing wild caught specimens, it’s occasionally imperative to conduct these investigations for the benefit of the species. I must say that I certainly prefer working on projects that do not involve terminal procedures and fortunately I have had other opportunities.
Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus
I’m scheduled to give a talk to an audience at the Beardsley Zoo in Connecticut next month on topics relevant to ecological health and conservation medicine. These emerging field disciplines are popular right now, just as veterinary epidemiology has become a hot topic among interdisciplinary collection-based research programs. They are not just popular. These health science disciplines are vital areas for researching the implications of the human-wildlife interface in regions of the world where wildlife coexists closely with human populations.
While perusing wildlife health resources I realized that I missed some recent epizootics or at least notable reports of disease outbreaks in wildlife. The Wildlife Conservation Society just released some news regarding the cause of a 2007-2008 die-off among two of the 9 extant species of howler monkeys. Altogether 59 monkeys in northeastern Argentina succumbed to this arbovirus (arthropod-borne virus) some of which were a subspecies of brown howler monkeys (Alouatta guariba). Although found in relatively high densities even in fragmented habitat, hunting and disease have impacted otherwise sustainable populations of these large leaf-eating monkeys.
Jungle Yellow Fever refers to the sylvatic or wild life cycle which persists with in New World monkey populations in forest habitat. The acute viral hemmorhagic disease which has it’s origins in Africa is also now endemic in Latin America. Infected Old World primates are typically asymptomatic, but the virus takes it’s toll on the more susceptible Central and South American primates which have not co-evolved with the disease. Aedes spp. mosquitoes serve as vectors of this viral pathogen and if they feed on unvaccinated populations of humans, the disease is easily transmitted and may persist in “urban” transmission cycles.
Yellow fever refers to the jaundice that affects some human patients. The disease, if not treated, can be lethal. As people continue to encroach upon wild lands and deforestation rates increase in tropical regions, the potential for the sylvatic disease transmission cycle to evolve into an intermediate and/or urban transmission cycle becomes increasingly likely. As people and monkeys increasingly attempt to co-exist, threats to human health from Yellow Fever will persist without the intervention of immunization and mosquito control programs. Yellow fever exemplifies a human health risk that can be assessed and addressed though surveillance programs targeted at wild primates. In this case brown howler monkey populations which are already threatened by human activities serve as indicators of disease outbreaks in areas inhabited by humans.
Some zoos in Latin America, including facilities in Belize warn people not to purchase monkey as pets, mentioning several reasons, one of which is concern over diseases like Yellow Fever. Yellow fever like all arboviruses is considered a zoonotic disease because the transmission cycle involves insect vectors and people. However, no direct transmission occurs between primates and people.
According to ISIS the only pair of brown howler monkeys (Alouatta guariba guariba – Northern Brown Howler) in captivity (on record) are housed at the Fundacao Zoo-Botan. de Belo Horizonto. I believe the animal photographed above is a red howler monkey.
In my recent post on celebrity menageries I mentioned the fate of Pablo Escobar’s hippopotamus herd. I had no premonition that the New York Times would address this topic in a much more compelling piece than what I provided, much less a few days later. It’s merely a timely coincidence. I applaud the director of the sanctuary featured in the article for taking in so many animals that were confiscated or in need of a good home. It’s a lot of dedication that often goes unrecognized.
But I also want to commend zoos, aquariums, and marine parks for displaying imperfect specimens. This wasn’t always the case. If you have worked with free-ranging wildlife you may consider any animal in a zoo to be fairly close to meeting the criteria for a perfect physical specimen. Many of them are. They don’t all bare the wounds of battle from aggressive conflicts with con-specifics, predators, or even prey that managed to inflict some damage. Many of the animals that I have seen in the wild have scars to prove that indeed they live there. In particular, I think of wild sea lions. From studying activity budgets of California sea lions hauled out just meters away on a rookery in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, California Sur) or from sailing by a colony of Steller sea lions near Benjamin Island (Southeast, AK), I would be hard-pressed to say that I’ve seen an adult or subadult animal that would meet the criteria of a perfect specimen by historic standards. It always surprises me a bit when patrons take pause at the sight of an animal that may well have been injured. In fact, when I think about it, I’ve probably witnessed just as many wild sea lions that have been branded for research studies as I have seen that have not been. Branding was a common and safe practice for marking wild animals for census work and demographic studies. I couldn’t imagine a branded animal on exhibit, but maybe there are some.
Today, zoos are very candid, often sharing this kind of information regarding research and clinical case work with the public. Living institutions treat these issues with more tact and sensitivity than ever before. It’s amazing how we can genuinely shape perception if concerns are addressed thoughtfully. It’s effective micro-crisis management.
I remember watching an Allen’s swamp monkey at the San Diego Zoo. Among this fascinating troop of guenon monkeys was a female with a juvenile. She was obviously missing a limb, but was able to get along just fine and tend to her parental responsibilities. In the background visitors were sharing their sentiments and most appreciative of the zoo for providing information about this individual animal’s health status. As I recall, one of the zoo’s interpretive graphics conveyed the message that just like people animals are imperfect. It was quite refreshing verbiage, and almost touching. Instead of eliciting great concern, cause for alarm, or unnecessary speculation, the language provided an explanation and message that was well-received by the guests. I thought this was very nicely done.
I think it is important to share with people that there is nothing wrong with animal ambassadors in captive facilities that fall short of perfection. They may better represent their wild counterparts and perhaps they convey to the public that although they may be different, they are offered great care and attention just like every other animal in the zoo collection.
Taxidermists, collection managers or curators at museums of natural history may speak of perfect specimens. Likewise researchers in systematics and taxonomy may also place value on perfect specimens, but not for purely aesthetic reasons. They may have studied newly described species or been working with various biological types (e.g., holotypes) as referenced by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
Their objectives are more likely aimed at providing reference data for scholarly publications (for the benefit of colleagues working with related taxa) and teaching.
Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus
Several people made excellent comments in response to the academic training inquiry concerning preferred scholastic programs for wild animal keepers. I would add that two-year degree in a zoo tech program or a two-year vet tech degree permits you to spend less time in school, gain credit through zoo husbandry rotations, and make contacts with people directly in the field. I know several zoo clinicians who teach in vet tech programs and some former zoo clinicians who run zoo tech programs. If you want to be a zoo keeper this is a definitely a direct route. Several curators advanced from entry- level keeper positions to curatorial positions with either of these degrees. I recommend 2 and 4 yr. vet tech degrees because they offer a more advanced training in preventive medicine and animal husbandry than strict animal science programs. It also helps to understand the veterinary vernacular and learn animal restraint procedures used on domestic and alternative livestock-topics taught in some programs.
This is not to say that people without degrees or other life science degrees won’t learn this on the job. If you choose a 4 year liberal arts program you may be limited in your options for major tracks of study and electives. Degrees in biology offer the broadest training. One may be required to take courses in organismal biology, genetics, cell/molecular biology, and microbiology, etc. This coursework complements pre-veterinary didactic training, but can limit opportunities to pursue coursework in evolution and systematics. This is the track I took and it only provided me with a superficial foundation for more advanced graduate study. Actually, my undergraduate degree was a combined biology-psychology degree which kind of diluted core curricula for these disparate disciplines. I chose this route because I wanted a background in biology with additional coursework in ethology and comparative psychology.
If you choose a larger university, particularly a land-grant university, you may be offered an opportunity to pursue a program in zoology where the concentration of course work may focus on organismal (whole animal biology) with additional training in conservation biology, ethology, and behavioral ecology. With that said, these programs, in my opinion, are best suited for people who want specialize in aquariology, or herpetology, entomology, or other invertebrate specialties. The reason I suggest this is because you are afforded an opportunity to really study taxonomy and ecosystem studies (e.g. courses in marine biology, limnology or physiological ecology of ectotherms, etc.).
Psychology is a good route if it offers coursework in comparative psychology or experimental psychology with specific training in operant conditioning. This later course is a primary reason that marine park hiring managers may like this kind of training. Hence, a psych degree without an operant conditioning course may not fit your needs.
Similarly an anthropology degree may serve people who specifically want to work with primates. If you work with bird or mammals a degree in animal science may be a preferred route because it offers training in the reproductive, nutrition and other applied sub-specialties that are of great relevance to animal husbandry and are transferable to exotic animal care. Again, these life science degrees are options, but not the only way to supplement your experience. Some of the best keepers don’t have collegiate degrees or they studied something entirely unrelated such as economics of French literature. And this is just my opinion based on experience with these different curricula. The programs in conservation medicine are certainly strong programs, but they may not be as applicable to a career in animal care and training, unless they offer coursework relevant to zoo biology and management. Many new curricula have emerged since I was an undergraduate student. There may be other applicable programs and preferences for hiring managers.
Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus