Clinical Conservation

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

leslie_week3When you think of an animal hospital, you probably envision a state-of-the-art facility only used to treat sick or injured animals. However, animal hospitals, like the Harter Hospital located next to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation Research, are very important in conserving animal populations. Besides the hospital itself being conservation conscience (using recycled material for holding pens and skylights to maximize the use of natural daylight), most of the conservation work occurs in the clinical labs.

Ms. Leslie Nielsen, a registered vet technician working in the Clinical Pathology Lab at the Harter Hospital, gave us a sneak peak into some of the conservation work that happens in the lab. A major project in the clinical lab is producing plasma (a.k.a. “the baby saver”) for animals in need. This is done by using a centrifuge, which is a machine that rapidly spins to separate particles based on mass. Then technicians like Ms. Nielsen are able to remove the plasma, or fluid part of blood, from the white and red blood cells. By doing this, the plasma can be transfused into the bloodstream of a young animal that did not receive enough nutrients from its mother, making it easily susceptible to diseases or other life threatening challenges.

Ms. Nielsen is also sometimes responsible for discovering previously unknown parasites which is important in the prevention of them in the future. From analyzing fecal samples of hoofstock for worms to looking through blood samples for hemoparasite, Ms. Nielsen must have a keen eye for identifying parasites that deteriorate the health of animals at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Equally important in her job is standardizing the normal platelet (a particle in your blood that clots together when you get a cut to stop bleeding) count in the collection. This is important in recognizing diseases or abnormalities in the animals at the Zoo or Safari Park. By finding the usual number of platelets in a certain species blood, it makes it easier to identify if the animal may have a disease or problem.

The Clinical Pathology Lab at Harter Hospital is involved in various conservation projects. One of the projects Ms. Nielsen told us about was the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP). Beginning in the 1990’s, the HEBCP breeds specific endangered birds in Hawaii for reintroduction into the wild to increase populations. Blood work and fecal samples from the birds in Hawaii are sent all the way from Hawaii to the Clinical Pathology Lab at Harter Hospital in Escondido. Ms. Nielsen and other lab technicians study these samples to help with successful reintroduction of birds to Hawaii along with prevention of further population declines.

Lab technicians like Ms. Nielsen play a vital role in the conservation puzzle. From plasma processing to discovering unknown parasites, she helps to determine issues concerning population challenges in the hopes of preventing additional decline. Although conservation is full of collaboration, most people probably don’t realize the significance of clinical pathologists because of their “behind-the-scenes” work. By talking with Ms. Nielsen, I discoverd a different, and very interesting, approach to conservation that I did not expect.

Leslie, Conservation Team
Week Three, Fall Session 2013