New consortium to walk on the wild side


CORVALLIS - Veterinary and wildlife experts at Oregon State University are expanding their scientific, medical and research efforts to everything from lions to leaf-eating monkeys as part of a newly-formed "Northwest Consortium for Wildlife Conservation Research."

A collaboration of the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, the Oregon Zoo at Portland and Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore., the new consortium will let area wildlife centers tap into OSU expertise while providing broad new research and educational opportunities for OSU faculty and students.

The initiative was founded with a $61,000, two-year grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, but many other funding sources, partner institutions and activities are expected to soon evolve.

"This is a win-win situation for the Oregon zoos and OSU," said Dr. Ursula Bechert, an OSU veterinarian and director of the new consortium. "They will be able to take advantage of our excellent diagnostic centers, surgeons, and expertise across the university, while our researchers and students will gain access to many wildlife research opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be possible."

The move is also a reflection, Bechert said, of the increasing awareness at many zoos across the nation that they are not only a place where the public can view wild animals, but which also hold special opportunities and obligations for wildlife conservation, preservation and research.

And, needless to say, it opens up some unusual opportunities in student education.

"This is mostly a research consortium focused on conservation, but students at many levels will have educational opportunities, maybe do internships at zoos, and explore some of the new career options in wildlife medicine or rehabilitation," Bechert said.

"It's definitely different from learning how to care for cats or cattle," she said. "I've been in up to my shoulder in the rectum of an elephant to do reproductive examinations. That's an experience you don't soon forget."

Emerging technologies are offering new opportunities in animal research, medicine and wildlife conservation, Bechert said. Studies in toxicology, nutrition, reproduction, and wildlife pharmacy are all possible at the new consortium.

Some projects already under way or planned include treating elephants with anti-inflammatory drugs, examining the nutrition and reproduction of elk, and exploring why black bears never get heart disease.

The research will take place at OSU and other Oregon wildlife facilities, Bechert said, but may expand well beyond that. For instance, OSU's Office of International Research and Development is exploring a project in which researchers and students might trek the plains of Botswana to help study the populations, movements and behavior of antelopes, lions, leopards and other species.

"With the technologies we now have, researchers can analyze the fecal samples of an elephant or other species to identify individual animals, and learn about such things as hormone fluctuations and reproductive cycles of animals in a wild environment," Bechert said.

OSU already has a surprisingly broad range of activities in wildlife research and rehabilitation, she said, in such departments or colleges as animal science, zoology, veterinary medicine, pharmacy, biochemistry and biophysics, fisheries and wildlife, forestry and other areas. The new consortium should improve the ability of faculty to obtain interdisciplinary research grants.

The expertise of OSU faculty includes diverse topics such as mammalian embryo development, the ecology of reptiles, bacterial diseases in birds, biochemistry of bears, and evolution of immunity. Such experts can be invaluable to area zoos and other research collaborators around the world, Bechert said, to improve the scientific care, management and conservation of wildlife.

"We also expect this to be very attractive to many veterinary students," she said. "Care of wildlife is actually a fairly small niche of veterinary medicine, but with the increasing interest in wildlife management and conservation it's a growing field. More and more vet schools are working in this area."

Individual scientists from the Oregon Primate Center, Oregon Graduate Institute, Portland State University, Oregon Coast Aquarium and OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center are also already involved with the new consortium, Bechert said, and more formal arrangements with those and other institutions may be possible in the future.