AVMA News

Wildlife veterinarians are natural one-health advocates as they work at the interface of human, animal, and environmental health. For insights into this line of work, AVMA News spoke with four wildlife veterinarians about their backgrounds and areas of expertise. This is the first article in our five-part series.

The wild life of wildlife veterinarians

Veterinarians work inside and outside government agencies to improve health of free-ranging wildlife
November 28, 2022

Dr. Ole Alcumbrac is frequently away from his mixed animal practice in Arizona from October through March providing training in wildlife capture, particularly of Sonoran pronghorns and Mexican gray wolves—both of which are endangered subspecies. Most of the work is done in the wintertime because of heat-related issues in the summer.

Dr. Alcumbrac, star of the television shows “Wild Ops” on the Outdoor Channel and “The Wild Life of Dr. Ole” on National Geographic, served as Arizona’s first state wildlife veterinarian before he realized he wasn’t built for government work. Now he owns his mixed animal practice and contracts for a variety of hands-on wildlife work.

Dr. Ole Alcumbrac holds a Mexican grey wolf being evaluated as part of a cross-fostering program, which trades genetically appropriate captive-born pups into wild litters to supplement and enhance populations in the recovery effort for the endangered subspecies. (Courtesy of Dr. Alcumbrac)

On the flip side, Dr. Anne Justice-Allen, Arizona’s current state wildlife veterinarian, started out in mixed animal practice but got interested in disaster management and then management of disease in wildlife. In her current position, she is mostly responsible for monitoring the health of wildlife populations in the state, including Sonoran pronghorns and Mexican grey wolves.

Dr. Justice-Allen also is president of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, a small group established in 1979. The AAWV members are mostly veterinarians working in government wildlife management agencies, but many members work for zoos and aquaria, academic institutions, wildlife rehabilitation facilities, and even private practices.

“People shift around,” Dr. Justice-Allen said. “You change jobs, and your duties change a little bit, but you still remain a part of the association, and it’s because we all have a passion for free-ranging wildlife and working with wildlife and maintaining a healthy relationship with wildlife as far as ecosystem health and minimizing human impact on wildlife populations.”

Dr. Anne Justice-Allen, Arizona’s state wildlife veterinarian, assesses and collects samples from a Sonoran pronghorn, part of an endangered subspecies. (Courtesy of Dr. Justice-Allen)

The SARS-CoV-2 virus probably originated in wildlife and has been documented in more than two dozen species. Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted the one-health concept that the health of humans, animals, and the environment is interconnected, and wildlife veterinarians continue carving out a niche working at the interface of these areas.

For insights into this line of work, AVMA News interviewed Drs. Justice-Allen and Alcumbrac as well as Dr. Jonathan Sleeman, center director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, and Dr. Patrice Klein, national program lead for fish and wildlife health with the U.S. Forest Service. Their stories will be told in four subsequent stories posted online each Monday.

AVMA supports wildlife conservation through policies, resources

The AVMA supports the conservation of wildlife through a number of policies, which collectively emphasize the one-health concept, and through resources including a decision tree for veterinary practices presented with a sick or injured wild animal.

The Association’s policy “Conservation of Wildlife” starts by stating: “The AVMA recognizes the vital role of wildlife in the Human-Animal-Environment complex and that wildlife conservation is most effectively addressed with a One Health approach. Such an integrated approach for the conservation of wildlife and native habitats promotes biodiversity and species preservation, sustainable and resilient populations, and healthy wildlife, domestic animals, humans, and ecosystems.”

The AVMA also has policies that cover the Association’s support for environmental responsibility, concerns to address with the ownership or possession of wild animals and exotic pets, how to handle interactions between wildlife and livestock, and the Association’s support for mitigating the risk of lead in the environment.

Among other resources, the Association has developed a detailed wildlife decision tree to help veterinary practices that are presented with a sick or injured wild animal.

“This decision tree serves as a guide for practices to assist them in navigating the complexities associated with treating wildlife species or their hybrids,” according to a description of the resource. “Basically, the chart helps your practice take care of the issues peripheral to the animal so that you can focus on treating the animal appropriately.”

The AVMA also offers links to more wildlife resources under the categories of governmental authorities, bald and golden eagles, carcasses or parts, endangered species, euthanasia, federal regulations, wildlife rehabilitators, marine mammals and sea turtles, migratory birds, and specific wildlife diseases.

A version of this article appears in the January 2023 print issue of JAVMA.