Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Wheels Are Turning

June 29, 2010

  What is it about this place and this experience that is so inspiring, thought-provoking, and just darn emotional!?  Today was a lecture that I have been waiting for since the beginning of the session: the Mountain Gorilla One Health Project.  How many "Manny friendly" words can we get in one sentence!?!  Dr. Mike Cranfield, Director, discussed his work with this non-profit organization that provides veterinary services to the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC.  The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) was established in 1986 with funds from the Morris Animal Foundation (based in Denver), and their primary goal is to maintain the health of this critically endangered species.  Currently, there are about 700 animals left on the planet and they all live in this protected area of Africa shared by these three countries.  There isn't a single mountain gorilla in any zoo in any country.  The only way to see them is to spend $500 for a guided trek into the forest (one of which is named The Impenetrable Forest - just to give you an idea of the type of landscape).  The MGVP was the first of its kind to provide veterinary care to a species directly in their habitat.  Never do they remove animals from this protected area.  56 people a day can make the trek to see these habituated animals.  In one year, each gorilla will see 2,000-3,000 people!  While this tourism generates a great deal of revenue for these impoverished countries, it doesn't come without a cost to the gorillas.  Because of the genetic similarity between gorillas and humans, many human diseases (Tuberculosis, measles, Herpes, HIV) can be passed to the animals.  Rwanda has begun requiring tourists to wear a face mask to reduce transmission, but this is still not a widespread practice in the other countries.  Also, tourists are generally stressed, sleep-deprived, and immune suppressed because of their travels making them an even greater risk to the gorillas.
  The MGVP is very selective with regard to their interventions and type of treatments they provide.  For example, they typically only intervene if the gorilla's injuries or disease is life threatening or human induced (i.e. hunter snares).  They must also consider social structure within the gorilla populations.  If they remove a solitary male from an area this might encourage new competitor males to enter their territory.  Unrelated males will often act aggressively toward the infant and young gorillas - their behavior typically results in the death of the young.  The work MGVP does is very calculated and conservative - the animals have to be allowed to live as naturally as possible.  However, because of their extremely precarious situation and the location of their habitat (frequent conflict between countries), health-related interventions are required for their survival.  One might consider the MGVP's work a success - in the last 10 years, gorilla populations have risen 17%.
  But that isn't the whole story.  These mountain gorillas are a perfect example of the need for a "one health" approach.  Not only are the animals subjected to hunter snares, infectious disease from ecotourism, and human conflict, but they are also feeling pressure from the 8 million villagers living on the outskirts of their protected area.  Resources are scarce and the local people use the mountainous land for agriculture and livestock.  They clear vast sections of trees for their crops, leading to severe erosion of the once forested landscape.  One health is about the interaction between animals (wildlife, livestock, companion), humans, and the environment.  The mountain gorillas are actually the perfect case study for these complex relationships - the health of one is completely dependent on the health of the other.  If the mountain gorillas are to step back from the brink of extinction, it's going to take a multidimensional approach.  MGVP is absolutely necessary, but in addition there will need to be a redistribution of local resources as well as community education.  Local people need adequate health care and sanitation.  Somehow we have to find a way to make this work or risk losing this magnificent animal forever. 
 In case you couldn't have guessed, as soon as Dr. Cranfield finished his lecture I jumped up and introduced myself.  I told him that I wanted to help - that I was serious about being a part of the project.  I felt the wheels turning - how could I position myself to be an asset to the project?  What skills can I bring?  What experiences do I need?  How can I save the mountain gorilla?

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Power of a Woman's Spirit

June 28, 2010

  Saturday night a bond between six women was made.  After a thought-provoking lecture regarding professionalism and networking, it came out that a few of my Envirovet colleagues thought they made a poor first impression.  I was startled to hear that one student in particular thought this of herself.  I approached her after the class and felt it necessary to give her my feedback on my first impression of her.  I felt moved to do this because my first impression was quite the opposite.  The young woman in particular struck me as mature, kind, light-hearted, and humble.  She was soft spoken and quick-witted.  I was quickly joined by other students who felt similarly - they shared their impressions (also very positive).  What resulted was a small crowd of six women who began gushing with optimism and respect for each other.  We decided to go to a place more quiet and private and continued our exercise.  We came back to the room Amelie and I share and we made a circle.  We took turns going around the circle speaking about our first impressions of the woman on the "hot seat."  Then we said all of the things we admired about that person and followed up with assigning each an animal personality.

  I was a little surpised to hear the group's description of myself -- kind, funny, pretty, nurturing, leader, and motherly.  Apparently when put in a group of like-minded peers I emerge as a leader and a nurturer.  I was flattered, and it made me realize that I am becoming the woman I always wanted to be.  When it came to Amelie, she started to describe how I took her under my wing when she arrived on the plantation a little later than the rest of us.  She started to tear up, which made me cry.  She said since we've been here I've taken care of her and looked after her - she hoped we'd be friends for a long time.  My animal: the African elephant.  You'd have to know a thing or two about the species before passing judgment, so here goes:

Elephants live in a matriarchal clan society, the basic unit consisting of a mother with her dependent offspring and grown daughters.  Clans are usually made up of 6-12 animals.  A herd's welfare depends on the matriarch's leadership.  The matriarch sets the herd's direction and pace and is usually the oldest and most experienced of the herd.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Science of Conservation

June 26, 2010

Yesterday was a lesson in small animal population control and genetics. We heard from experts in the field including Dr. Steve O’Brien (geneticist) and Dr. Linda Penfold (reproductive biologist) – I felt very humbled to even be in their presence. Dr. O’Brien shared a bold idea to re-establish tigers into an area where a genetically similar extinct subspecies formerly roamed. Tiger conservation has been failing and now there are more animals in captivity than in the wild. Using modern technology, he and his team have been able to identify this related subspecies which will allow them to reintroduce a population of animals that are best suited to adapt to the ecosystem.

Dr. O'Brien lecturing about the Genome 10k Project in the Big Game Room

Dr. Penfold’s work in reproduction biology primarily serves to improve genetic diversity of threatened and endangered species. While animal numbers within a group can be improved through breeding programs and artificial methods, something that people rarely think about is the genetic “bottleneck” that occurs when animal numbers get too low. Genetic diversity is extremely important to the health of the herd. When a disease strikes the population, the weak and sickly animals are most impacted; however, if all animals within the herd have the same genetic composition and resistance to disease, the disease will be significantly more disastrous to the population. Many animals in captivity are severely inbred, making them “generic” or “hybrid” animals. Currently, efforts are being made to improve the genetic diversity of these animals which serve as “insurance populations” for animals in the wild. It’s a relatively new concept to involve genetic work in conservation, and it’s not an easy job. Dr. Penfold discussed the difficulty in importing gerenuk semen from the African grassland, where diseases considered “foreign” in the United States are relatively common (i.e., foot and mouth disease). The USDA required a veterinarian from the agency to oversee all operations in the field. Dr. Penfold is still working on getting the semen into the country – a hiccup I had not previously thought of in this line of work. While the federal regulations are in place for a reason (foot and mouth disease is a highly contagious disease that dramatically reduces productivity of livestock species), they can greatly reduce efficiency of conservation efforts, increase costs, and delay intervention strategies.

Learning how to do "quality control" on a blood film

Following our morning of lectures, I got to hone up on my laboratory skills with semen collection from the tail of a canine epididymis, follicle collection from a feline ovary, and making blood smears on cheetahs and rhinos.  I really feel like this experience is enriching my veterinary education.  It's amazing how much you can learn when you have one-on-one instruction, state-of-the-art facilities, and adequate time to devote to practicing the new skill or discussing the concept.  Envirovet is a rare educational opportunity, and I am so blessed to be here.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


I'm going to have a beautiful, meaningful life - forging a path that allows me to do what I love for what I love. 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Getting out of the Classroom

June 24, 2010
Me with an anesthetized zebra

  Today was truly one that I will never forget!  For years I have looked longingly at pictures of veterinarians and students with their hands on exotic species like elephants and tigers - now I have some of my own.  After spending a day learning about chemical immobilization and anesthesia of wildlife in the classroom, the students of Envirovet 2010 got to get out in the field and try it for ourselves!  Amelie and I woke up at 5:30 this morning and quickly ate breakfast in the Lake Lodge.  Then we boarded vans and headed towards the animal enclosures.  On the schedule for today: physical exam and hoof trims of 2 zebra and a bongo, and the collection of semen from a gerenuk.  We divided into 4 teams and each were assigned a task: intubation, heart and respiration monitoring, temperature monitoring, catheterization, and injections.  We quickly realized the need for the early start - the heat by 7:15 a.m. came as a surprise to us all!  We survived, the animals survived, and we've got some great pictures to prove it!
  Yesterday we learned the basics of field immobilization, including dart making, rifle shooting, and gun and drug safety.  I got to fill and assemble my very first dart!  I also got to practice shooting them out of blow pipes and rifles.  I was pleasantly surprised to see I even made my target a few times (maybe I could make it in the bush!)  We had a blast and have some stories and experiences to last a lifetime!
Me in front of my successful darting of the elk
  Tonight after dinner is a surprise "wildlife adventure" with the senior vets of the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Disney's Animal Kingdom.  God only knows what these guys have up their sleeves - what a bunch of goofsters!  This is a fun crowd - no wonder I can't get any sleep!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Unexpected Lessons

June 22, 2010
I left the safety and security of my home, family, and work a week ago today. So far this experience is far more than I ever could have expected. I have already learned so much about wildlife health, international community health, and tools available to the scientists in the field. But not only have I learned about what's on the syllabus, but I have had many "unexpected lessons."

Amelie, Sridhar, me, and Nate at the Jacksonville Zoo

For example, the true universal language is laughter. When having dinner where you are the only American, there is a lot of laughter and smiles. Watching Sridhar from India eating raw vegetables while all he wants is rice - what a good sport! He quickly stopped me from talking about the Indian food I like...tandoori, tikka, nan. I started to see him drool.
I've also learned the power of meditation. Sukuman taught Jocelyn and I about the meditation practices of her people. She said people will meditate for up to 15 hours whenever they "feel the need." She admitted that the first time you try it you will feel uncomfortable and it is difficult to concentrate on not concentrating. I can only imagine the benefit of mental clarity and how this could enrich the lives of the average American citizen. Sukuman also taught us about Buddhism, and it was amazing the overlap between Christianity. The overall principles - honesty, morality, benevolence - were consistent across cultural lines.

Jocelyn and Sukuman learning about Thailand

Yesterday a rather large spider found residence above my bed. I was instantly faced with a moral dilemma: to kill, to remove, or to ignore. Amelie and I are both rather squeamish around insects (Tanzania should be interesting), so we called for one of our male housemates. Ben from the Democratic Republic of Congo came to our rescue, but Ben did not do what we thought he would. He attempted to pick up the spider with his bare hands and place it outside. He then turned to us and began telling us that all life is sacred and that it is bad to kill. He claimed this spider played an important role in the greater ecosystem. While I agree with Ben, I didn't want the spider's ecosystem to become my sheets. He assured me that even if it crawled across my face while I was sleeping, I would be OK. So compared to the loss of life for the spider, my creepy-crawly feeling suddenly seemed very insignificant.

The lessons continue, and I am excited to share. One thing is for sure, my life is richer not only because of the animal stories but because of the people.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Lucky Rhino

June 20, 2010
I learned yesterday that getting mud from a Sumatran rhino on you makes you lucky. In that case, I am very lucky! The Sumatran rhino I saw is only one of three in captivity in the U.S. and there are only approximately 300 left in the wild in parts of Sumatra and Indonesia. This guy was one of my favorites! He was so friendly and actually came up to the bars to meet us and get his back scratched. Rhinos have very poor eyesight, so we were warned not to put our arms between the bar and their bodies--although they don't mean to cause harm, they could break an arm (or worse) if caught in the wrong place. On the tour of the conservation center we also saw zebra, giraffes, antelope, cheetahs with cubs, tigers, and South American wild dogs. We also toured the veterinary hospital, the laboratory used for hematology/serology/hormone assays, and saw a cheetah chase!

After the tour and a quick lunch, we had a lecture by Dr. Heather Eves from the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force. Her initiative aims to reduce the illegal trade and consumption of wild animals, especially those that are endangered or threatened such as many of the primate species. Not only is bushmeat hunting unsustainable, but it also serves as a potential source of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases. Experts suggest that HIV actually mutated from the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) in chimpanzees due to this practice. I found Dr. Eves and this talk to be particularly interesting given my interest in emerging infectious diseases and primatology.
After the day's lectures we had dinner, and I was joined by two fellow Envirovet students from Africa and Dr. Eves. We began discussing our career paths as well as the continent we were soon to be visiting. It became apparent to me last night that Africa will change my life. As I was listening to Dr. Eves and the others discuss the people, the culture, and the beauty of the continent I actually felt my eyes well up with tears just a bit. What they were describing, a place where it still quite literally takes a village to raise a child and a local person insists that you take their only egg from their only chicken, made me realize that once I see their way of life and their struggles and their spirit, I will forever be changed to my core. I won't be able to come back to America and not feel more connected to the earth and to its inhabitants. I won't be able to continue down the path of most consumption, taking up more than my fair share of this planet's resources. Most of all, I won't be able to be ignorant.
One of my favorite quotes, and one that I see every night before going to bed, is Ghandi's "you must be the change you wish to see in the world." I want to see a world where compassion prevails over greed, and where you are not judged by how much you have but by how much you give back.
Tonight I share with you an idea told to me by the wise Dr. Eves: teach your children to be selfless and thoughtful inhabitants of this world. For birthdays and Christmas, teach them that it is not about getting "things." She suggested just 4 presents: something they need, something they want, something to wear, and something to share. How cool is that?!?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Getting Behind

Hands on with a white rhino
June 18, 2010
I’m realizing the importance of a daily blog. Only three days into Envirovet 2010 and I’m impressed by the quantity of information and the quality of instruction. I can’t remember what I did yesterday because my brain is so full of valuable information from today! Thursday’s lectures included: linkages between human health and the environment, mitigating civil disparity and poverty, and transfrontier conservation areas. Dr. Pat Erickson discussed her work in the Dominican Republic which essentially strives to educate the community of Haitian adolescents who work in the sugar cane bateys of the DR on the HIV crisis and ways to protect themselves. The prevalence of HIV in Haitian community is approximately 10% - one of the highest in the world. We did an exercise where everyone in the class had to walk around and have a conversation with someone they did not know very well. We were instructed to take notes and converse for 3-4 minutes. I started talking with Chuma, a veterinarian in the Tanzanian National Parks. I learned that Chuma has been married for 6 years, has 2 young kids, has a favorite color of green, and a favorite animal of the elephant. We got into a good conversation, and before we knew it, our time was over. Then the instructors told us that each of the 3 group leaders had “HIV.” Everyone who talked to one of them was now infected and must stand at the front of the room. Soon, more than half of the students were standing at the front. Now they asked, if you talked to anyone standing at the front, you were then also infected with HIV. The remaining students moved to the front and soon, only Chuma and I were standing at the back. Lesson learned: having a long-term relationship (or in this case, conversation) greatly reduces your risk of HIV transmission…yay for monogamy!
Dr. Steve Osofsky from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) lectured on the new concept of African Transfrontier Conservation Areas, which essentially aims to drop physical boundaries between national parks in southeastern Africa. This idea would hopefully serve to increase available roaming spaces for free-ranging wildlife and increase ecotourism to the countries involved. The idea also has a sociopolitical advantage, improving relations between countries that share wildlife and benefit from the economic pull of their animals.
The underlying theme for Thursday’s lectures was that conservation work doesn’t always mean working directly with animals. Sometimes a project brings you to a country where your greatest need as a health care professional is not as a veterinarian but as a health care advocate. In order to help a nation’s animals you must first gain the trust and build solidarity with the people. To improve wildlife habitat it may require an economic equation, proving that such changes would bring prosperity to the country. To put it simply, conservation requires a multi-dimensional approach.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rough Beginnings

June 16, 2010
Before beginning this blog I had to double check my watch because I didn’t believe only one day has passed. I left Denver yesterday afternoon and had an uneventful flight to Atlanta with a planned layover of 45 minutes. Little did I know, Mother Nature wanted me to extend my stay. I eventually boarded my flight to Jacksonville at 1:30 a.m., 4 ½ hours behind schedule. Then to add insult to injury, I heard an announcement that due to the large volume of canceled and misdirected flights all Delta passengers would receive their luggage at the earliest possible time tomorrow. This was not going to work for me! I purposefully left Denver 12 hours earlier than necessary to prevent sleep deprivation and a red-eye flight. I tried to remain positive – after all, my flight was still leaving!
My positivity paid off and when I arrived at the Jacksonville Airport at 3:00 a.m. and my luggage arrived shortly after. I called the hotel to arrange for a shuttle pick-up and soon I was making my way into a queen-sized bed, dressed in my own pajamas with teeth brushed! I got a few hours of shut-eye before receiving a phone call from the front desk that my ride had arrived. Let the journey begin! I said a quick prayer, knowing that I was about to step into the land of no return. I would forever be changed by the people I was about to meet and the experience that would soon follow.
Waiting in the lobby was my driver, Troy, from White Oak Conservation Center. I was the first of his pick-ups, but soon I was joined by Ademola and Ayoteju from Nigeria, Sridhar from India, Albert from Tanzania, and Sukuman from Thailand. It was a quick drive to the White Oak plantation. Within 30 minutes I was greeted by the zebra, frogs, and lizards that call this place home. I received my room assignment, Woods Cottage. I am the only American staying in this four-bedroom cottage….I love it! My housemates include the Tanzanians, the Nigerians, and Amelie, my French-Canadian roommate. I am helping Amelie master her English and she promised to teach me a few French expressions. We will learn Swahili together!

Woods Cottage, my home for the first 2 weeks

We were all quick friends! We bonded over a game of bowling (something new to the International students), a box lunch, and Elvis music over the jukebox. White Oak is too much! I didn’t expect this luxury! Our cottage is outfitted with a fridge stocked with cans of soda, a fully-functional (and free) washer and dryer, and each bedroom has its own attached bathroom. The plantation has two swimming pools, tennis courts, running/hiking trails, bicycles, and a dance studio. Inside the dining hall there are tapestries on the wall dating back to the 16th century. Apparently, Mr. Gilman, the creator of this magnificent place, had a taste for the performing arts, photography, and conservation!
We had a quick introduction from the Envirovet staff after getting acclimated followed by a wonderful dinner cooked by the White Oak staff (chicken with roasted vegetables and rice pilaf). I survived the ice-breaker exercise so now the good stuff can begin. On the schedule for tomorrow: ecosystem health as a discipline, linkages between human health and the environment, and Grassroots Soccer! Bonne nuit!

Amelie in our room in Woods Cottage

A Journey Begins...

June 15, 2010
All my bags are packed, and I’m ready to go…but not without many hugs, a few tears, and a lot of planning!! I started packing on Saturday, in fear that just 24 hours wouldn’t be enough. I’ve had to do a lot of shopping and list-making to get ready for this trip. How does one prepare for 8 weeks, half of which will be spent halfway across the world?!? There won’t exactly be a Wal-Mart in walking distance in Morogoro, Tanzania…thank God! Of my new acquisitions are closed-toe water shoes to protect my feet from the stingrays, a waterproof windbreaker to wear during my outdoor lectures which will take place rain or shine, and several pairs of Exofficio underwear (the kind you can wash in the sink and are dry within a few hours – we’ll see how true that is in 100% humidity!) As Chad said best, this trip has been sponsored by REI!
I’m very grateful that I got to spend a few hours with my family last night celebrating Josie’s birthday at the new Denver pinkberry. Cue Homer Simpson’s “mmm, pinkberry”…*drool* The highlight of my evening was listening to Josie, age 9, and Alayna, age 5, singing Johnny Clegg’s “Are You Ready?” I played that song for them over and over again a few months ago on one of their visits to Deeda Camp. Clegg is a South African musician who has a talent for creating beats that you can’t help but bop to and lyrics that get stuck in your head for hours. Of my favorites: “the world has crocodile eyes” and “we are genetically coded to decode our code.” Seeing them sing African music made me smile and gave me a renewed excitement for my trip.
This morning went just as scheduled. I woke up early and took Polaris for a quick run around the block (a little mother-daughter bonding to try to prevent her from forgetting me…how long are Labrador memories??) I gave her a bath, brushed her teeth, and cleaned her ears – I like to think that I’m needed for this although Chad assures me he’s capable (and willing). I finished my last-minute packing, weighed my luggage (17 kilos, perfect!), and finished up with transferring important files to my more portable laptop. I waited for my mom to arrive to give me her proper send-off. She promised Rod she wouldn’t cry – she lied. I didn’t make any promises.
Chad and I had a nice lunch at Cracker Barrel on our way to DIA. Sadly, the realization of the trip settled in about a quarter through my grilled chicken salad. My stomach got that nervous feeling, and I hadn’t even finished my second biscuit! We continued on our way to the airport, and I kept hoping Chad would surprise me with the news that he too had bought a ticket to Florida because they decided to do Envirovet Couples Edition this year. Needless to say, I am making this journey alone.
On the airplane I distracted myself with finishing the first draft of my journal article on bovine tuberculosis in Ireland. After all, I will be making the trip to Ireland to present my research in only a few short months! What a year this will be! Although it’s only halfway through, I’m quite sure 2010 will be remembered as one of the best years of my life. In the background of my paper is the sound of a familiar voice, Dr. Quinn. I rewarded myself for working on my paper by watching a few episodes of one of my favorite TV shows. Today the Medicine Woman is my companion and a source of a little inspiration. She did unthinkable things in her day, such as traveling across the U.S. to pursue her dream. She left her comforts and took a chance. She was a pioneer and an independent spirit with a big heart. I guess today I am a pioneer. I am embarking on a journey of self-discovery, personal and professional growth, and once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Thank you to those who have made this day possible. Whether it be through words or prayers, I have felt your love and encouragement and it has inspired and enabled me.