The Puzzles of Pathology

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!

eric_week6_picToday, we live in a society where diseases and viruses have plagued every aspect and area of our lives. Whether we’re at home, school or even work, the fear of catching a flu or illness is always a possibly that concerns and weakens us at unexpected moments. And at instants like this, we often have that one person that protects and recuperates us as we struggle to get better and recover. Whether it is our mother, a doctor, or even a friend, these people act as problem solvers that provide the ideal remedy to truly help us towards recovery.

Similar to humans, animals rely on a special individual to provide them the care and expertise they need to combat any harmful disease or sickness. At the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, the animals are occasionally stricken by a disease and/or illness that eventually could lead to death. But with an animal’s death, the pathologists within the Wildlife Disease Laboratories provide the necessary tools, research, and knowledge to prevent future occurrences. Acting as problem solvers for animals, the scientists within these laboratories provide individual pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that, when completed, has the potential to save the lives of many other animals.

We got the opportunity to meet two crucial pathologists at the San Diego Zoo, whose work in the field of pathology (the study and diagnosis of diseases) gives living animals a fighting chance against many illnesses. Jenny Bernard, a Pathology Fellow, and Sabrina McGraw, a Pathology Resident, both work in the Wildlife Disease Lab for San Diego Zoo Global, where they provide diagnostic services for every deceased animal that previously resided in the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Due to the lack of information and poor understanding about animal diseases, Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw do necropsies (examinations on whole, dead animal) to collect necessary information on a particular species. Occasionally, they will also do surgical biopsies (examinations of cells or tissues from a living animal) in order to further research and expand knowledge about developing diseases. All the information collected from the necropsies and surgical biopsies give Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw the answers to important questions like what was the cause. Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw also collaborate with other employees of the Zoo, such as clinical vets, nutritionists, and animal care staffs to ensure that the highest level of care is being given to all the animals.

With only about 25 Zoo Pathologists in the United States, the San Diego Zoo has five full-time Zoo Pathologists that are vital to both San Diego Zoo Global as well as other zoos across the nation. To fully understand the role of pathologists, you can compare their work to someone trying to solve a difficult jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle provides a clue that connects to another piece and when the puzzle is complete, someone can understand the whole picture that is created, or in a pathologist’s view, the disease that caused the death of an animal. Processes such as diagnostic tests, outbreak investigations, tissue and cell examinations, and nutritional analysis are all essential towards collecting the pieces that will solve that ultimate question: what caused the death of this animal? Whether they are doing a necropsy or looking at an animal’s cells and tissue, every procedure will bring Dr. Bernard or Dr. McGraw one step closer to discovering the fatal disease, just as every piece of the jigsaw you connect will bring you closer to discovering the picture it creates.

In one particular animal case study at the San Diego Zoo, a Micronesian kingfisher was found dead, after seeming to be in perfect condition the day before. Since this particular species of kingfisher is now extinct in the wild, one death is a horrible loss, and future deaths must be prevented in order to save the species. The Zoo’s pathologists were called in to investigate the sudden death of this exotic bird in hopes that their knowledge and research would provide the answer to what exactly happened to him. To begin solving this unique jigsaw puzzle, pathologists began by asking for the bird’s medical history and any current health issues from the keepers. Learning that the Micronesian kingfisher had no current or past illnesses narrowed down the list of potential diseases, a significant piece to the puzzle. By taking a small sample of tissue from the liver and observing it under a microscope, pathologists found small purple dots inside the liver and heart that could provide a deeper insight into the mystery. They discovered that these purple dots were actually a virus that was preventing the functioning of major organs, which ultimately led the kingfishers death. By looking at past medical histories, doing necropsies, and examining the tissues and cells, pathologists collect pieces of the puzzle that when connected properly will provide an answer to almost any mystery.

As diseases and illnesses continue to affect animals at the Zoo, it’s up to our pathologists, such as Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw to solve these difficult puzzles in order to help prevent future sicknesses from occurring. Although we may lack the education and knowledge about diseases and viruses to make an impact, some of our actions as humans have caused some of the illnesses that Dr. Bernard or Dr. McGraw have investigated. In one particular instance, diagnostics on birds have discovered that pennies and other loose coins can be found within the stomachs of dead birds. It has always been a human perception that throwing coins into fountains is good luck, but this isn’t the case for birds. As pennies or quarters are thrown into fountain, they soon find their ways into bird’s stomach as food, which can lead them to slowly decay, which in turn gradually poisons the animal. Simple actions such as not throwing coins into fountains or any type of trash can help to ensure animals aren’t harmed by human actions. With each person doing their part to stop littering, Zoo pathologists like Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw can focus on the more threatening diseases that are plaguing the animal kingdom every day.

Eric, Real World Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2014

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