Session Five: Role of Veterinary Medicine in Wildlife Research
Moderator: Gail C. Golab, American Veterinary Medical Association
Gail C. Golab, chief veterinary officer for the American Veterinary Medical Association, welcomed the workshop participants to Session Five, which focused on the role of veterinarians and wildlife researchers as they work collaboratively with wildlife biologists to ensure compliance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), as well as requirements around the use of pharmaceuticals, in the design of studies, and when working in the field. Margaret A. Wild provided an overview of the wildlife veterinarian’s role in championing animal welfare programs and policies. Kevin Monteith and Michael W. Miller shared a wildlife biologist’s and wildlife veterinarian’s perspective, respectively, on understanding, accepting, and enhancing the role of veterinary medicine in wildlife research. Monteith focused on integrating nutrition, population, and quantitative ecology to study fitness and population dynamics of large mammals. Miller helped to establish one of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) within a wildlife management agency. As a formal federal wildlife veterinarian specializing in these procedures, Daniel M. Mulcahy shared information about surgeries in the field.
THE WILDLIFE VETERINARIAN’S ROLE IN CHAMPIONING ANIMAL WELFARE PROGRAMS AND POLICIES
Margaret A. Wild is a professor in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology at Washington State University. Her presentation began with an overview of a veterinarian’s role in research. Wild proposed that this role is not limited to clinical medicine. A veterinarian has a legal, regulatory, and/or ethical responsibility to champion welfare practices as well as policies, she clarified. Veterinarians cannot ignore their responsibility to apply animal welfare standards to wildlife, even though it may at times appear that there is not enough guidance or that the laws and regulations are too complex to interpret, she said.
Wild suggested that the first role most people consider for veterinarians in research is the provision of medical care and treatment for animals. There are indeed certain activities, like invasive surgery, she said, that fall under the definition of the practice of veterinary medicine and need to be conducted by a veterinarian. There are also complex tasks, such as some types of sampling or support provided to animals under anesthesia, that are usually conducted by veterinarians.
Due to the challenge of having a veterinarian onsite for research being conducted in the field, veterinarians frequently play the role of a consulting veterinarian, Wild said. This role includes training researchers on tasks such as sample collection and the administration of drugs. A consulting veterinarian may also prescribe drugs. She offered that, similar to consulting with a statistician during the planning stages of a study, it is important to consult with a veterinarian to get ideas and input on the veterinary aspects of the study. In the case of new techniques, she said, having a veterinarian conduct a field visit can be useful to discuss how the research is progressing or to determine if, for example, pain mitigation is sufficient. Having a veterinarian available for follow-up to discuss procedures or unexpected issues that arise can also be helpful.
Particularly in this consulting role, Wild continued, it may be easy to forget that the veterinarian’s role is more than an informal one. In this veterinarian–client–patient relationship (VCPR), the researcher is a “client” acting in a public trust role representing the citizens of a state who are the owner, rather than a single owner, as may be the case with a domestic pet. The veterinarian has assumed responsibility for clinical judgments. Wild explained, veterinarians, whether serving as a consultant in wildlife research or practicing clinical medicine (e.g., treating a dog with antibiotics to fight an infection) are bound by the VCPR; and although the veterinarian and client work as a team, she continued, the client agrees to follow
the veterinarian’s instructions. When the patient is a pet, the roles in this relationship are clear regarding the veterinarian, the pet, and the owner, she said. However, in the case of wildlife some generally accepted modifications to these roles exist. In wildlife research, the patient is the animal(s) in the wild and the involved veterinarian is more likely to have knowledge of the wildlife population rather than of an individual animal. In addition, the veterinarian will also have some input regarding disease dynamics, prevention, control, and treatment.
Wild stated that although not all researchers may be aware of the veterinarian’s obligations, a veterinarian knows their responsibilities due to the nature of their education, training, and licensing. These responsibilities include an obligation to be available for follow-up, provide oversight, and maintain records, which in the case of wildlife are often the capture records. Wild also noted that most veterinarians will be quite sensitive to fulfilling these responsibilities because of ethical reasons. In addition to their knowledge of the practice of veterinary medicine, Wild noted veterinarians’ general understanding of state and federal laws, regulations, and guidelines related to other issues, including prescription medicines and controlled drug acquisition, handling, and use; prescribing and administering drugs to a wide variety of species; and animal welfare considerations.
Wild then focused on the animal welfare laws and began with the AWA. The AWA covers many topics, including the requirement for humane standards, such as ensuring that research animals receive appropriate painkilling drugs. Veterinarians who have been trained to work in research usually have awareness and knowledge of these animal welfare laws, she noted. Additionally, veterinarians have taken an oath (as shown in Box 5-1) to, among other things, protect animal health and welfare, and to prevent and relieve animal suffering (AVMA 2022). As a result, Wild continued, a veterinarian has a responsibility in the planning and conduct of animal research carried out by their agency and they contribute to this responsibility through participation in research, training researchers, and serving as consulting veterinarians.
The veterinarian in a wildlife management agency has an important role to play in policy development and implementation, and Wild offered that engaging in policy is one of the most influential roles a veterinarian can play. If an agency already has policies and procedures for adhering to the AWA, then the veterinarian can contribute to implementing that policy. If an agency does not have policy in place to comply with the AWA, she suggested that a veterinarian has a responsibility to bring their awareness to an agency’s leadership.
Wild then presented a 2017 article authored by Mulcahy, which argued that agencies may fail to comply with the requirements of the AWA for one of three reasons (Mulcahy 2017). First, she noted that the agency may state that it does not conduct wildlife research and is only a wildlife management agency; management is not covered under the AWA. Second, according to the article by Mulcahy (2017), various degrees of enforcement of the AWA may perpetuate non-compliance in certain situations. She noted that the 2017 article offered the burden of compliance as the third reason. Wild offered one additional reason from her own work and that of her colleagues: a lack of clarity in regulations and policy regarding which wildlife activities must meet the AWA regulations. She indicated the availability of additional
information on the AWA regulations, including publications in scientific journals that provide perspectives and arguments for the applicability of the AWA to wildlife, but that this information is not widely accessible. Other agencies, she added, such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the National Park Service (NPS) have long histories of research oversight by IACUCs, sharing that good models already exist and can be utilized in the absence of more regulations and new guidance.
Wild referred to the decision tree from the NPS previously presented in Laurie Baeten’s talk (Session Two, Part 1) that can be used to determine the requirements for IACUC review and oversight for projects involving animals. The more the field develops and shares policies, procedures, and protocols, and publishes those when appropriate, she said, the more help will be available for those who are struggling to decide on the applicability of the AWA to the work conducted by their agency. Wild noted the final role of the veterinarian in wildlife research is to share their experiences and the tools that their agency has developed and to support relationship building among agencies and people with different backgrounds. By including veterinarians, biologists, ethicists, and policymakers in collective discussions, it could help to ensure that the stakeholder community is advancing the welfare of wildlife, while also conducting research that is necessary to inform wildlife management.
Wild closed by remembering a friend and colleague, Tracy Thompson, who exemplified this last role through generously sharing her insight and work with others to apply animal welfare standards to wildlife (see memorial on p. xiii of this publication). Thompson spent her career working to improve animal welfare, she said.
UNDERSTANDING, RESPECTING, AND ENHANCING THE ROLE OF VETERINARY MEDICINE IN WILDLIFE RESEARCH: A WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST’S PERSPECTIVE
Kevin Monteith is an associate professor at the University of Wyoming. His presentation discussed the role of veterinarians in wildlife research from his perspective as a wildlife biologist. Monteith was the only non-veterinarian speaking on the role of wildlife veterinarians in this workshop. Monteith noted coordination with Michael W. Miller, a wildlife veterinarian, in preparing his presentation. Monteith reminded the audience that the perspectives he shared stem from his own experience and observations as a biologist. Much of his work is couched within the lens of nutritional ecology, using animals themselves as indicators for what is being experienced in the environment. Consequently, much of his work involves the repeated capture and handling of more than 10,000 ungulates across a broad range of species, landscapes, and conditions to better connect an animal to its environment.
Monteith began by describing what he believes is one of the greatest contributors to a challenging dynamic between biologists and veterinarians in wildlife research settings: the need for biologists to work under the umbrella of a board-certified veterinarian. Whether that is to gain access to controlled substances, to meet state or federal permitting requirements, or to gain IACUC approval, a biologist constantly has to seek approval and support of a veterinarian, he said. Sometimes comparable evaluations from multiple veterinary entities may yield opposing recommendations on the same project and can lead to difficult situations for the biologist to identify a compromise among different veterinary authorities.
Monteith suggested that some biologists may have a wealth of experience, competency, and knowledge of the relevant data or published literature, and may be capable of identifying an appropriate path forward in various field situations. However, he continued, the veterinarian on the project will always outrank the biologist in terms of authority to make a decision. This kind of relationship between veterinarians and biologists can be counterproductive and it is through better understanding of the perspectives of both veterinarians and biologists in future efforts that these sorts of situations can be avoided or remedied, he said.
Monteith first identified the kinds of backgrounds each professional typically has. Trained biologists will usually have in-depth training in ecology, biology, and wildlife management, with potentially some training in communication. Biologists’ educations may also include working with data and statistics. Unlike veterinarians, no formal standard training is included on veterinary practices, he
said. Biologists may have some authority as the principal investigator (PI) on a project. Otherwise, depending on the conversation or the decision, the biologist’s authority may be based on evidence and experience, which may often carry little weight relative to the veterinarian, who has ultimate practice authority. The legal and ethical responsibilities for a veterinarian are clearly defined, while those for the biologist are less defined legally, Monteith said.
Perspectives of biologists and veterinarians on the research project may be completely aligned in some instances, although they may also have diverging views, he continued. In Monteith’s view, a veterinarian may focus more on the individual animal, and emphasize welfare and preventive medicine. In contrast, the biologists, Monteith suggested, may often have a broader view that is focused on the population; this can be a necessary perspective when considering conservation decisions including species recovery. Furthermore, biologists are completely reliant on veterinarians for access to controlled substances. The VCPR and the veterinarian’s license puts the onus on the veterinarian to prescribe and supply these substances, he added.
Monteith proposed three issues that biologists need to understand about the dynamics and the relationships between veterinarians and biologists. First, he said, veterinarians are legally at stake. Therefore, what they approve or support can certainly affect them professionally, when biologists ask them to approve and support research. Second, he continued, veterinarians have a common core training, and thus have much to offer biologists; veterinarians can also contribute as collaborators. Third, a pathway exists to focus on collegiality and collaboration in the relationship between biologists and veterinarians.
Monteith next shared three issues that could be helpful for veterinarians to understand when working with biologists. First, he said, biologists also have much at stake, and when a biologist is suggesting or proposing a course of action that is counter to the veterinarian’s opinion, this may derive from substantial insight and experience. Second, listening to one another is important as many biologists have relevant perspectives that can be included in making decisions or recommendations. Third, he offered that veterinarians are inherently respected as experts and that their word carries weight, but they can make mistakes.
Monteith next summarized several main challenges to collaborative veterinarian–biologist–wildlife relationships. First, the veterinarian often is perceived as the primary expert and authority in the relationship, regardless of the experience or background of either the biologist or the veterinarian. Second, he noted that the authority of a biologist as the PI for a project may be perceived to conflict with the legal and other authorities of the veterinarian. Third, because of the permitting processes and the necessary approvals, the relationship may become challenging as decisions are delayed for reasons out of either party’s control. Fourth, both the biologist and the veterinarian may feel they are placing their reputation in a difficult position because of the challenging nature of wildlife research that may create complicated dynamics for both to navigate.
Monteith shared his thoughts on several ways to improve veterinarian–biologist–wildlife relationships, indicating that conflicts or challenges do not need to be inevitable. The first approach he suggested is that of entering the situation from a position of mutual respect, which is essential. The second approach is to collect and publish more data on capture and handling methods, animal welfare, and perhaps associated standards. He said that many practices are accepted as standard but are often not well represented in the literature. Third, understanding and acknowledging differing perspectives is critical. Fourth, he noted that more training may be useful. For biologists, training may include veterinary practices and animal welfare. For veterinarians, training may include research applications or specific wildlife trainings. Finally, Monteith said that veterinarians and biologists need to be better about talking and listening to each other.
To close, Monteith communicated that he was encouraged by the workshop conversations and hoped that both biologists and veterinarians could reflect on the dialogue from the session with an empathetic view. He said that he sees hope for genuinely beneficial and productive biologist–veterinarian relationships for the betterment of wildlife resources and stakeholder interests.
UNDERSTANDING, ACCEPTING, AND ENHANCING THE ROLE OF VETERINARY MEDICINE IN WILDLIFE RESEARCH: A WILDLIFE VETERINARIAN’S PERSPECTIVE
Michael W. Miller provided a wildlife veterinarian’s perspective to complement the biologist’s perspective offered by Monteith in the previous talk (Session Five, Talk 2). Miller has been practicing wildlife veterinary medicine and working for Colorado Parks and Wildlife for more than 30 years. Important in the context of this workshop, he noted that his research has been reviewed, approved, and overseen by an IACUC that functions within the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. From experience, he said that it is quite feasible to do wildlife research while also following established animal welfare laws. He opened by summarizing the background, roles, responsibilities, and perspectives of biologists and veterinarians in the context of wildlife research.
The idealized VCPR acknowledged in clinical practice does not always translate into wildlife research, especially in the field, and, he added, it may feel forced. That does not mean the notion of a constructive relationship is dismissed. For a variety of reasons, including complying with existing laws and meeting the public’s expectation on how wildlife resources are treated, Miller offered that stakeholders need to chart paths forward to make these relationships in wildlife research settings more collaborative. To that end, he described his long-time wildlife veterinarian’s perspective on understanding, accepting, and enhancing the role of veterinary medicine in wildlife research.
Miller presented a series of lists on the same four areas covered earlier by Monteith; the lists were developed independently. He shared three items he thought helpful for biologists to understand. First, he said that catching and handling wild animals is distressing and sometimes may be painful to the animal and can also be painful to the investigators if they are not careful. Second, the animal welfare rules do apply. He noted that veterinarians do not make the rules but are obliged to follow them. Third, Miller suggested that biologists and veterinarians can actively seek additional input from other subject-matter experts and consider alternatives when confronted with a situation that has more than one proposed solution.
Speaking to his veterinary colleagues with roles in wildlife research, Miller shared several items he thought helpful for them to understand. First, he suggested that authority does not necessarily equate to expertise. A veterinary degree may not have equal experiences with respect to someone with many years of wildlife research experience. A second area he raised related to the ability and comfort levels that biologists and veterinarians would need to have is mutual respect, including in situations where they can indicate that they are not comfortable proceeding in a given direction, or would like to have additional information or consultation before a decision is made.
Miller noted several main challenges to functional veterinary–biologist–wildlife relationships. First, and perhaps most importantly, is an inconsistent understanding of and respect for the rules, responsibilities, differences in professional perspectives, and standards between veterinarians and investigators. Second, he said that in the field these differing perspectives may be combined with an uneven and sometimes inconsistent application of animal welfare laws. Third, in field research, an inconsistent and limited availability of true wildlife medicine expertise may be present. Fourth, Miller discussed navigating myriad and often cross-purpose rules related to veterinary practice, extra-label prescription drug use, and other issues. Fifth, he said that the veterinarian in many cases may not be able to participate directly in situations and cases under their practice authority and responsibility.
Given these challenges, Miller offered several potential solutions to help improve working relationships between veterinarians and biologists. First, compulsory training could be offered for biologists, including stress and pain physiology and management across taxa. Such an approach could support a common understanding of issues that underlie a veterinarian’s viewpoints on welfare, he said. Second, compulsory training for biologists and veterinarians, when needed, in research ethics, animal welfare laws and standards, and specific applications to wildlife studies in the field could be provided. Third, broader conversations could be encouraged to establish standards for acceptable and unacceptable field practices. Fourth, Miller noted the need for better use of informal veterinary consultations early in the field study planning process. Fifth, he suggested better use of wildlife experts and wildlife medicine experts in institutional review processes for wildlife studies.
Citing the comparison between the biologist and veterinarian perspectives shared in the workshop, Miller noted some common themes and proposed that the mindset move beyond biologist versus veterinarian. He indicated his confidence that greater investment in cultivating collaborative relationships will benefit research oversight and operational aspects of field studies involving wildlife species. Doing so will ensure compliance with established laws and likely will improve wildlife subject welfare and field research products. Examples of collaborative relationships in field research settings are not hard to find and can serve as a catalyst for progress elsewhere, he said.
SURGERIES IN THE FIELD
Daniel M. Mulcahy is a retired wildlife veterinarian specializing in field surgeries on free-ranging animals and former editor of the Journal of Wildlife Diseases. He spoke about surgeries done on free-ranging animals in the field setting and focused on regulations in animal welfare relative to surgeries rather than specific surgery techniques.
Surgery is likely second only to capture in its intrusiveness on wildlife, Mulcahy began. Compliance with the AWA, Interagency Research Animal Committee principles, and U.S. Public Health Service policies have introduced new and unaccustomed requirements for information and accountability from wildlife researchers (Mulcahy 2017; Proulx 2017). External forces, largely those related to obtaining sample collection permits and publishing in research journals, have pushed the agencies toward compliance (Field et al. 2019), he continued. The increasing employment of veterinarians by agencies and institutions has brought knowledge and expectations to allow such a high degree of regulatory compliance (NRC 2013). However, Mulcahy said, the employment of these veterinarians has not been driven by animal welfare compliance issues, but rather by the need to deal with disease issues like chronic wasting disease and obtaining capture drugs.
Mulcahy noted that surgeries have become an important part of wildlife science. As shown in Box 5-2, there are a wide variety of surgical techniques done on wild animals to obtain samples for various analyses; equip animals with tracking devices; mark them for individual identification; and otherwise surgically manipulate them. It is both efficient, and from an animal welfare point of view, desirable, to do surgeries as close as possible to the location where the animals are captured, he said.
Interestingly, he said, no federal laws provide guidance that regulates who can do surgeries on wild animals. However, there may be state laws or even local regulations defining the issue. Such laws exist in other countries. Over the years, Mulcahy said he has observed that most surgeries done on wild birds and mammals are conducted by veterinarians, whereas most surgeries done on fish are conducted by biologists. He suggested that is because fish are not covered by the AWA.
It is both possible and desirable to do wildlife surgery at a high level of quality, Mulcahy said. The intention of good technique is to reduce potential adverse effects that might affect the quality of the data being collected. The basic assumption of manipulations, such as marking and tagging, for example,
is that those procedures do not change the status quo of the animals, or at least do so as little as possible. The goal for all surgeons should be to produce the highest-quality repeatable results to support the project goal, he said.
From the standpoint of their capture, wild animals come in two varieties: (1) those small enough to be safely handled by hand, and (2) those too large or too dangerous to be handled by hand. The latter, Mulcahy said, and some of the former, are given drugs to ensure that they are tractable and safe to handle. All U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs are approved for a specific species or group at a specific dosage, and used by a specific route of administration for a specific purpose. Any other use of that drug is called extra-label drug use, he noted. The use of drugs in an extra-label manner was illegal prior to 1994 when the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA) permitted extra-label use (21 C.F.R. § 530, 1994). In the AMDUCA, he said, Congress placed the proper use of prescription drugs for animals in the hands of veterinarians and made them accountable (Clapham et al. 2019).
Mulcahy thinks the use of antibiotics in surgeries on wild animals, domestic animals, and humans is currently controversial due to the emergence of drug resistance that is rapidly rendering certain antibiotics less useful. The proper use of antibiotics in surgery and other wildlife procedures may be of great interest to many because of this growing problem (Mulcahy 2011).
Drugs used for the capture, anesthesia, and sedation of wild animals are all prescription drugs, Mulcahy noted. In addition, the potential for human abuse has brought most wildlife capture drugs under the purview of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He added that the possession of such capture drugs is a legal issue more than a biological issue. The DEA is quite serious about enforcing these regulations, and a permit is required for their use, he emphasized. Mulcahy added that there are specific legal requirements for storage and accounting; losses must be immediately reported to the DEA; and DEA agents will conduct unannounced onsite audits.
Mulcahy noted that surgeries conducted on wild animals are usually done as part of a larger study, unless the focus of the research is the surgery itself. IACUCs ought to expect thorough details about all aspects of the surgery, including details on surgeries that are part of a multi-year project or are performed by more than one biologist, he said. It may be worthwhile to first write a specific surgical protocol describing the technique and seek to have it approved by the IACUC and used as a matter of routine over time and across biologists. Subsequently, the researchers can refer to it in a submitted project protocol. For example, a statement in the animal use protocol (AUP) along the lines of “transmitters will be attached using approved protocol 2022-xxx with the following exceptions….” Any additions or alterations to the IACUC-approved standard protocol should then be provided after that statement, said Mulcahy.
Mulcahy said that aseptic techniques in the surgical sense mean that all methods are used to prevent the introduction of potential pathogens into the animal during surgery. Aseptic techniques in wildlife surgeries are a frequently misunderstood topic, especially in fish surgeries where veterinary involvement is limited. He added that the AWA regulations and others are clear that all survival surgeries must be done using aseptic techniques, although these do not necessarily have to be conducted in dedicated surgical facilities (Mulcahy 2013), which means that surgeries may be done at the field site. The advantages are to reduce the adverse effects in the animal and to ensure that the data gathered and the conclusions drawn from those data accurately represent the wild animals. Good technique results in good data, he said.
Producing guidelines, standards of care, and best practices have become popular in recent years, Mulcahy continued. Published guidelines and similar documents setting standards for the techniques used in wildlife research have some value; however, these documents typically have limitations both in their focus and in their use, he said. Differences exist in guidelines between taxa, which can result in a variation of techniques used in different taxa across the wildlife biology field. Importantly, such guidelines should not be blindly accepted, he cautioned. Guidelines are not laws or regulations, and IACUCs are not bound to follow them, so he suggested that they not be used as a substitute for federal laws and regulations such as the AWA.