Ecosystem health is the goal of Envirovet

Program has been training veterinarians in one health for more than a decade
Published on June 01, 2008
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(Clockwise from lower left) Lorraine Thompson (veterinary student, UC-Davis), Rudovick Kazwala (faculty, Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania) and Matt Blandford (veterinary student, Purdue University) immobilize an adult male zebra at White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, Fla., as part of their training in wildlife and ecosystem health at Envirovet Summer Institute 2007. Envirovet Faculty Jeff Zuba (upper right; San Diego Wild Animal Park) and White Oak Conservation Center animal care staff provide expert instruction and mentoring.

This June, the Envirovet Summer Institute will welcome the latest class of veterinarians and veterinary students who will learn how their profession can protect people and wildlife by preserving the ecosystems they share.

The goal of Envirovet is simple: increasing the number of veterinarians working to solve environmental problems that threaten animal and human health. Since its inception in 1991, more than 400 veterinarians and students from some 47 countries have trained in the program.

When Dr. Val Beasley, a professor of veterinary toxicology at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, started the organization, he saw it as a means of getting veterinary students engaged in environmental toxicology and ecologic stewardship.

While a graduate student in the early '80s, Dr. Beasley went through AQUAVET, a program in aquatic animal health still offered by the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University.

"As a toxicologist myself, I recognized that a lot of problems of aquatic animals were related to contamination issues," said the Envirovet executive director. "I decided there was an opportunity to complement that with more of an emphasis on fresh water and on the effects of contaminants."

Envirovet has since undergone a major evolution. Today, the program is a collaboration of the University of Illinois, the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, White Oak Conservation Center, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, and a range of U.S. and international organizations that provide instructors for the course.

In many ways, Envirovet was ahead of its time. "We've been focused on introducing veterinarians and veterinary students to concepts in wildlife and environmental and human health—the one-health concept—since our inception nearly 20 years ago," said Dr. Kirsten Gilardi, an Envirovet director with the UC-Davis Wildlife Health Center.

The 25 or so Envirovet students are immersed in instruction ranging from epidemiology and wildlife diseases to natural resource economics and hydrology. Through field exercises, lectures, and laboratories, students gain an understanding of the direct and indirect impacts of infectious agents and toxicants on species, communities, ecosystems, and public health.

Moreover, the program provides a greater understanding of the effects of habitat loss, altered predator-prey relationships, and exotic species invasions. These stressors are considered in concert with related environmental regulations, policies, and laws that influence the integrity of wildlife populations.

Envirovet students spend the first part of the seven-week course at conservation and oceanographic institutes in the United States. Next, they travel to a developing country for three weeks to experience how ecosystems health issues and strategies compare from country to country. This year, participants will be in Tanzania.

A key aspect of Envirovet is that students spend a lot of one-on-one time with the faculty, who donate their time to the program.

"Envirovet faculty impress upon veterinarians that they do have a role to play in tackling these issues," Dr. Gilardi said. "We show them how to work with human health and ecosystem health professionals so that together they can really make a difference for environmental sustainability."

Envirovet students have included a veterinary college dean, department heads, and professors. Alumni of the course have become veterinary school professors and section directors at a number of diagnostic laboratories. Others have found careers with agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while some have started nonprofit organizations. Several heads of wildlife health services in east Africa and elsewhere have gone through the Envirovet training, Dr. Gilardi added.

On April 22—Earth Day—at a meeting in Washington, D.C., hosted by The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, Envirovet leaders met with representatives from federal and international agencies and organizations including the AVMA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Agriculture Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and others to explain the program's mission and how it promotes human and animal health. (For a complete list of the groups attending the meeting, visit

"We thought it was critical to get people together to introduce them to the program," Dr. Gilardi said. "The timing was perfect, given all the interest in one-health initiatives, and we really feel strongly that our program is a perfect example of one health in action. We are a very practical and tangible example of what people mean by one health."

In attendance was AVMA Governmental Relations Division director, Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, who said he isn't aware of any other educational opportunity that translates the one-health concept into real-world working principles the way Envirovet does. He said, "The students who have been fortunate enough to experience this unique immersion training are already turning up around the world as real leaders in the global veterinary community."