Pathology at the Parks

Lion Necropsy Photo
During a necropsy, a WCS pathologist examines this lion thoroughly. 
Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

What is making this animal sick? How did it get sick? Is the illness contagious to other types of animals or to humans? WCS pathologists are on the case. Few of the world’s zoological institutions have the on-site capability to pinpoint, prevent, and sometimes—as in the case of West Nile virus—even discover the presence of diseases in wildlife. But since the early 1900s, WCS pathologists have been doing just that.

The Bronx Zoo’s first pathologist, Dr. Harlow Brooks, diagnosed tuberculosis in chimpanzees, a disease that probably had been contracted from visiting humans. Brooks’s work began the development of a century-long library of records and archived tissue samples. These resources have proved invaluable to scientists investigating historical outbreaks or newly emerging wildlife diseases.

Challenges

Disease can manifest itself in many ways, affecting individual animals or entire populations differently. WCS veterinary pathologists diagnose diseases in all kinds of species, from tiny toads and fish to bald eagles and elephants. Their expertise in identifying diseases in many species is crucial to our zoos’ and aquarium’s routine animal management practices and to prevent the spread of a disease within our diverse wildlife collection or between our animals and New York City’s local wild species.

Goals

  • Identify disease processes that may affect the wild animals in our care
  • Ensure the health of wildlife in the four New York City zoos and the New York Aquarium and of free-ranging wild animals locally and at WCS field sites around the world
  • Aid research and facilitate communication concerning diseases transmissible between humans and animals worldwide
  • Train veterinary students, residents, and other veterinarians in New York and abroad in wildlife pathology techniques and practices

What WCS is Doing

WCS’s pathologists, technicians, and medical records specialists work to detect and identify viruses, parasites, and harmful bacterial and fungal infections before they become big problems. The staff analyzes biological samples and studies the relationships of diseases within and between animal species as well as the impact of environmental factors on animal health. WCS pathologists consult and collaborate with veterinary and non-veterinary specialists and independent researchers at other zoological institutions, wildlife and conservation organizations, museums, medical centers, veterinary colleges, and government agencies in the discovery of novel pathogens and new or emerging diseases, which could affect not only our animal collection but also wildlife and humans.

With Cornell’s department of Biomedical Sciences, WCS offers a veterinary residency training program in Veterinary Anatomic Pathology, with a special emphasis in Zoo Animal and Wildlife Pathology. A pathology externship is also available for veterinary students. Visit Student Externships in New York for more information.

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