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Investigating and Healing on a Larger Scale

Investigating and Healing a cat

When a wild animal is brought to a wildlife rehabilitator for care, the focus is on getting that animal well enough to return to the wild. But beyond the details of each illness or injury, organizations like the Wildlife Center of Virginia are also careful to watch for patterns that might indicate a widespread problem.

For example, when a number of box turtles were being treated for severe sinus and ear infections, it was clear that a root cause needed to be investigated. These turtles were often so severely affected that their heads were too swollen to retract into their shells. Examinations showed a common thread: They were deficient in vitamin A.

A vitamin deficiency wouldn’t be unusual in a domesticated animal, since they are usually dependent on their human caregivers to get the right kind of food. But it’s very unusual in a wild animal—how were these turtles not getting exactly what they needed from their usual diet?

Further research showed the culprit was in fact a human influence: Chronic exposure to a particular kind of pesticide appeared to cause metabolic changes in these turtles. That altered the way their bodies processed and utilized vitamin A.

In order to spot and investigate problems on this scale, a lot of details are needed. The intake of each animal involves multiple questions: Where was it found? Were there others nearby? What are its symptoms? What is known about how it was injured?

At the Wildlife Center of Virginia, all of these details are fed into a database called WILD-One. It’s shared by multiple organizations that care for wildlife, so they can build a body of data where meaningful patterns are more visible.

While watching for patterns that suggest a need for deeper investigation, the center also participates in research that is already underway. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) introduced “The AMR Challenge,” an effort to combat antimicrobial resistance. This is a growing problem that occurs when the usual approaches to infection no longer work, because the disease-causing germs have developed a resistance to them.

It’s a frequent problem in human healthcare, but because of the One Health concept, the CDC knew it would be important to involve veterinary medicine as well. The Wildlife Center of Virginia, among others, signed up to participate. They looked back on 10 years’ worth of bacterial cultures to see which bacteria had appeared to be resistant to which antibiotics, and contributed those findings to the CDC’s research.

What You Can Do!

  • Report wildlife problems to authorities. Bringing a single sick or injured animal to your local wildlife rehabilitator is certainly helpful, but if you notice multiple animals that appear sick or injured, that is definitely cause for a call to your local wildlife agency.
  • If you work in the wildlife field, make an effort to share your knowledge. What might not seem significant or unusual to you could be the key to solving a widespread problem if you share it in a database with others.
  • Learn about what’s happening with the wildlife near you. Keeping up with the local news can help you understand emerging diseases, and research you can help with or learn from.
  • Because so much of this research has implications beyond wildlife, it’s important for humans to learn from it. If it inspires you to change your habits, you might save some animal lives and improve your own health too.