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The importance of wild animal health

By: Gayle Joseph Date: Oct 21, 2019
Penn Vet Wildlife Futures - Julie Ellis, PhD, and Lisa Murphy, VMD
Drs. Julie Harris (left) and Lisa Murphy (right), co-directors of the Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program.
The health of wild animals is increasingly recognized as a fundamental aspect of wildlife conservation and management. In the past 20 years, Pennsylvania has dealt with introductions of several new infectious diseases and disease vectors that threaten the well-being of wildlife. For example, white nose syndrome has caused the deaths of millions of bats since its discovery in a NY cave in 2006. Once the most common bat species in Pennsylvania, the little brown bat, is now a species of greatest conservation need, as its population has recently declined by 90%. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) continues to spread to new parts of Pennsylvania, infecting and killing deer and threatening hunting tradition. 

When sick wild animals are observed, it may be an early warning sign of an infectious disease or environmental pollutant that has the potential  to also harm other animals or people. For instance, West Nile Virus (WNV), first detected in wild birds in New York, spread to PA in 2000 and has contributed to significant declines in the ruffed grouse, the state bird. Human cases of WNV have also been observed nearly every year since its discovery. The introduction of new disease vectors in PA (e.g. Asian Longhorned Tick) that can be found on wildlife and companion animals, also pose a threat to the health of livestock and humans. A multi-disciplinary approach to disease surveillance and response that includes wildlife managers, scientists, and veterinarians is required to effectively address these complex disease threats. 

Monitoring and Management of wildlife health through the Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program 

To this end, PennVet and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) recently initiated the Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program  (WFP), a new science-based, wildlife health program that will increase disease surveillance, management and innovative research aimed at better protecting wildlife across the Commonwealth. Under the co-leadership of Drs. Julie C. Ellis and Lisa A. Murphy, the WFP will integrate statewide wildlife health activities into a single unified program to address wildlife health issues, to prevent the introduction of disease, and to develop rapid disease response capacity. The Program will dedicate 12 employees, most of whom will work full-time out of New Bolton Center, to address wildlife diseases. These new staff and faculty will include a wildlife disease ecologist, board certified wildlife pathologist, diagnostic case coordinator (VMD), and a science  communications specialist. 

The goals of this new program include: 1) establishment of state-wide,  innovative research and surveillance programs to identify diseases with the potential to infect wildlife, livestock, poultry, companion animals, and humans; 2) development and maintenance of a comprehensive wildlife health information system including a database of wildlife health cases, mapping, and data analysis to integrate real-time, disease response; 3) facilitation of cross-agency communication of existing and emerging wildlife disease, translation of applied-research for science and technical publication, and building of an external communications platform to ensure that timely information is available to the public; and, 4) enhancement of technical and staff capacity through a comprehensive training and development program on disease  surveillance, management, and animal health systems. 

The WFP will generate numerous opportunities for collaborative research projects conducted by PennVet faculty, PGC biologists, and WFP staff. Further, we will develop a cadre of wildlife health professionals through certificate programs wherein veterinarians, biologists, and other professionals may obtain training in biosecurity protocols that would protect poultry, livestock, and wild animals from infectious pathogens. Ultimately, our vision is to safeguard the health of domestic animals, wildlife, and humans through enhanced disease surveillance and response, transdisciplinary research, and timely communications across agencies and organizations throughout the Commonwealth. 

Dr. Julie C. Ellis (MS, PhD, senior research investigator), an ecologist, started working at PennVet in September 2018. Her PhD research at Brown University focused on marine birds and their effects on biological communities on islands and coastal shores in the Gulf of Maine. Julie joined the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in 2006 to manage the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET), a citizen science program that brings together researchers and the public to identify and mitigate threats to marine birds. Upon investigating a die-off of common eiders (a type of sea duck) on Cape Cod, her efforts led to a collaborative project across 24 different organizations, which contributed to the discovery of a novel virus that affects these ducks. The eider project inspired a regional program to coordinate wildlife disease surveillance in the region, the Northeast Wildlife Disease Cooperative (NWDC). The NWDC, established in 2013, provides diagnostic services, expertise, training, and research support to state and federal agencies that manage wildlife populations in the Northeast. At PennVet, Julie continues to administer the NWDC, and with Dr. Murphy, is co-directing the PA Wildlife Futures Program (WFP).  

Dr. Lisa A. Murphy (VMD, DABT, associate professor of toxicology-CE), graduated from Penn Vet and joined the Department of Pathobiology as a toxicologist in 2005.  Part of the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System (PADLS) at New Bolton Center, the Toxicology Laboratory helps to diagnose and prevent poisonings in agricultural animals, pets, and wildlife and identifies nutritionally relevant compounds such as minerals and Vitamin E.  Her research interests are related to environmental contaminants such as freshwater algal toxins, lead, mercury, and anticoagulant rodenticides that affect both wildlife and domestic animals and may also pose risks to food safety and public health. She became the PADLS New Bolton Center Resident Director in 2015. 


About Penn Vet

Ranked among the top ten veterinary schools worldwide, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) is a global leader in veterinary education, research, and clinical care. Founded in 1884, Penn Vet is the first veterinary school developed in association with a medical school. The school is a proud member of the One Health initiative, linking human, animal, and environmental health.

Penn Vet serves a diverse population of animals at its two campuses, which include extensive diagnostic and research laboratories. Ryan Hospital in Philadelphia provides care for dogs, cats, and other domestic/companion animals, handling nearly 35,300 patient visits a year. New Bolton Center, Penn Vet’s large-animal hospital on nearly 700 acres in rural Kennett Square, PA, cares for horses and livestock/farm animals. The hospital handles nearly 5,300 patient visits a year, while the Field Service treats more than 38,000 patients at local farms. In addition, New Bolton Center’s campus includes a swine center, working dairy, and poultry unit that provide valuable research for the agriculture industry.