Safeguarding wildlife, securing the future
Story by Deirdre Healey
It wasn’t what Scarlett Magda expected when she begged her University of Guelph adviser Kerry Lissmore to allow her to spend one of her fourth year veterinary college rotations with a non-profit organization in Uganda.
The Ontario Veterinary College student stepped off the plane to find that all of the organization members were on Christmas vacation. She was alone and solely responsible for training local vets assistants to care for hundreds of goats in a program to provide goat milk and income to families who had lost husbands and fathers to AIDS.
By day, she travelled along rural roads in a 4×4 truck, visiting the families. At night, she Skyped with her supervisor in Canada before falling asleep on a mattress on the office floor.
“I would call my supervisor kind of freaking out,” says Magda with a soft laugh. “I was doing castrations and other medical procedures for the first time. It definitely made me step up my game and forced me to apply the skills I had learned.”
Looking back, the U of G alumna realizes this daunting experience gave her the autonomy and confidence she needed to help her get to where she is today, as a respected small-animal veterinarian and the founder and president of Veterinarians International (VI).
Based in Manhattan, the volunteer-driven organization aims to improve the lives of people in developing countries through the concept of “one health.”
Along with a team of 12 veterinarians and 17 volunteers stationed around the world, Magda works with existing organizations to better the health of animals in ways that in turn better the health of humans and the environment.
“By improving the health of animals, we are improving the health of humans,” says the 35-year-old. “People are infected with diseases transferred from animals more than any other source. We need to have healthy animals in order to have healthy people.”
Established in 2014, Veterinarians International runs programs in Kenya, Chile, Guatemala and Thailand.
“We send trained vets to these areas with a focus on educating the local vets and animal health workers so that when we leave they are still able to look after the situation.”
In Marsabit County, Kenya the organization is doing work similar to what Magda did during her vet student stint in Uganda. VI members are working with an existing program that provides goats to women, whose husbands have been lost to AIDS or conflict, enabling these women to feed and support their families. VI teaches local animal health-care workers how to care for the goats, and also trains those workers to teach the families about how to tend and breed the animals.
“I Know How Fragile And Traumatized Our Planet Is. It’s A Huge Concern.”
Education is also the focus of two programs in Valdivia, Chile and Chuchumatan, Guatemala where VI members work with local groups to prevent the transmission of tapeworms and rabies respectively, from dogs to humans. Pet owners learn proper pet hygiene and care including use of a dog leash. Vaccinations and sterilization programs are also part of the project to help prevent the dogs from contracting diseases.
In Surin, Thailand, the organization works to improve the health and welfare of elephants used in the tourism industry. VI members are specifically working with some 200 elephants living in a government-funded reserve.
“Elephants used for tourism or other work were making their way to Bangkok where they would beg for food and sleep in alleys,” said Magda. “The government decided they couldn’t have elephants in the city so it created a space for them to live with their owners.”
VI funds Thai veterinarians to teach owners how to properly care for the animals. Owners learn how to introduce the elephants to the forest and how to socialize with other elephants – experiences that are foreign to these animals that have spent most of their lives tied to chains no longer than a couple of metres long.
As part of this initiative, the organization recently set up two mobile vet clinics to provide medical care for the elephants.
The official launch of these clinics this past May attracted the attention of world-renowned veterinarians, elephant trainers and animal welfare experts. The first-ever positive reinforcement training workshop followed the launch.
“I didn’t realize all these people would gather together from around the world for this launch and for the workshop. It was a revolutionary moment for elephants and how humans treat them.”
For Magda, the event validated her belief that improving the health and welfare of animals is a vital part of healing the planet as a whole.
“I know how fragile and traumatized our planet is. It’s a huge concern of mine. Knowing I can help on some level to improve the planet is what keeps me going.”
Rhinos, elephants, lions and giraffes are killed daily in South Africa by poachers for illegal trade. Horns, bones and tails are removed from these endangered animals and the carcasses are left to rot or be devoured by scavengers.
It’s a big business worth about US $10 billion a year, and rhino horn is the hottest commodity. Poachers will risk their lives to get their hands on it. If caught by reserve rangers, poachers could be shot on sight.
It’s a full-on war and in the midst of it all is Laura Graham, a University of Guelph adjunct professor and alumna with a passion for animal welfare and conservation.
“I’ve always been driven to help animals. It feeds my soul,” she says.
That’s what drove Graham to spend this past summer living on a game reserve in Pongola, South Africa. She knows all too well the grim situation faced by endangered animals and wants to try to salvage something good from their deaths.
She plans to determine whether reproductive organs may be retrieved from the carcasses. She hopes to freeze and store sperm and eggs to ensure a diverse gene pool for future propagation of the species.
“It’s a unique scenario in that these animals aren’t dying from old age like they do in zoos,” said Graham. “These are strong healthy animals killed in their prime of life. This makes them ideal for gamete retrieval. We need to maintain genetic diversity of all endangered species if they are going to be able to adapt to our changing world.”
Her plan is filled with obstacles – a perfect fit for an animal biosciences professor used to exploring uncharted territory.
Over her 25-year career, she has developed globally-recognized techniques to preserve the lives of endangered animals.
One of her biggest achievements so far is the development of tests that use urine and feces to detect hormones for stress, pregnancy and ovulation in captive species, particularly zoo animals. Zookeepers can use these non-invasive tests to monitor animal welfare and improve breeding programs.
Graham was drawn to developing this tool decades ago as a U of G undergraduate working at the African Lion Safari in Hamilton, Ont.
“I’ve Always Been Driven to Help Animals. It Feeds My Soul.”
“I heard about how a tiger had given birth and all the cubs were killed by the other tigers she was housed with,” she said. “When tigers give birth in the wild the mother goes off on her own because she knows the other tigers will kill her cubs. It’s instinctual for tigers to kill small things. However, in this case the zookeepers didn’t know the tiger was pregnant so they didn’t remove her from the others.”
Back then, determining whether a zoo animal was pregnant required a blood sample, which is not only difficult to obtain but stressful on the animal, said Graham.
“I knew there had to be a better way.”
She studied hormone patterns of wild species, including tigers, and developed simple pregnancy tests using feces. Since then, Graham has expanded this idea to test not just reproductive hormones but also stress hormones in animals’ urine and feces.
She has used these tests in breeding and animal welfare projects involving endangered species both in captivity and in the wild, from Arctic polar bears to Vancouver Island marmots to African elephants.
“My work started with zoo animals but now it is translating to wild populations.”
In fact, at the South African game reserve this past summer, Graham collected elephant feces and conducted hormone tests to learn how elements such as drought conditions, population density and vehicular traffic affect the animals’ stress levels.
“Park owners care about this because the less stressed the animal, the better it will display for the people driving through on safari.”
She also recently developed a simple, economical and effective way for conservationists to store and freeze sperm from animals using technology no bigger than a backpack that may be used in zoos and in the field.
Although Graham is eager to add her gamete retrieval project to her list of ground-breaking accomplishments, she can’t just yet.
While the reserve rangers agreed to help her and were able to find animals in time to retrieve viable gametes, her instructions ‘got lost in translation,’ said Graham.
“Instead of the testicles, they brought back the skin that surrounds the testicles and there wasn’t much I could do with that.”
Despite the setback, Graham hopes this partnership will work and if it does she said there is the potential to set up similar projects in other parts of the world to help preserve endangered animals.
“I need to do all I can to help ensure the survival of these endangered species because it is my species that is causing their extinction.”