Thursday, September 07, 2006

"Wildlife Vet to Be" Studies Caribou in Alaska

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Link to "Vet Student Summer" blog.

Did you see any brown bears this summer? How about moose? Grey whales? Caribou? You know, I didn’t either. But let me tell you about someone who did.

Nina Hansen is in her fourth and final year as a student in the U of I’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program. Although she anticipates beginning her career in a relatively conventional job working in private practice, her ultimate goal is to become a wildlife veterinarian. In that role she anticipates working for the good of wild animals by generating new knowledge about factors affecting their health and welfare. Preferably in Alaska.

Hansen got to Alaska this past summer by securing a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation to investigate a method for gauging pesticide exposure in caribou by measuring the activity levels of certain enzymes in their blood.

Observers have witnessed a drastic decline in populations of North American caribou over the past couple of decades, but as yet scientists have been unable to identify the cause or causes of the decline with much certainty. Some research has suggested that climate change may be a factor, as more variable arctic weather creates conditions unfavorable for caribou to forage, and at the same time swells populations of the parasites that plague them.

Working with her U of I faculty adviser, Petra Volmer, who is the principal investigator on the study, Hansen hopes to determine a useful blood marker for evaluating whether exposure to certain pesticides is having a negative affect on caribou health. This measure would fit into the broader assessment of caribou health being pursued by Kimberlee Beckmen, a U of I vet school alum now with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and Hansen’s mentor in the field.

You can get a sense of what it means to be a wildlife vet in Alaska by checking out the blog that Hansen kept during her four weeks of field work this summer. Although she writes with great enthusiasm for her work, this was no vacation.

Consider her entry for June 15th, a day spent doing post mortem examinations of caribou on the tundra. She writes

Unfortunately the weather was TERRIBLE all day long. It was like 35 degrees and raining/hailing. We were all wearing layers and layers of clothing covered by full rain gear.


We did four adults that day, and it took us about 5.5 hours. We were beat after that! I think if I hadn't been sawing through spines and skulls the whole time I would have frozen solid. I feel tough now though, having survived almost 6 hours of freezing rain in the middle of the Alaskan tundra.

Now, I imagine it’s a pretty select group of people who will read Nina Hansen’s blog and think to themselves, “I’d like to try that.” But the account of her summer is a good reminder of the wide range of work veterinary medicine can entail, and it’s a testament to the dedication sometimes required of people who work for the benefit of wildlife.