The Wonderful Wildlife Pathology Unit

The Wonderful Wildlife Pathology Unit

When I walked into the Labs on the hill above Five Rivers Nature Preserve for the first time, the natural history displays held me in awe. At the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where I spent a lot of my happiest childhood hours, there was always glass between you and the artifacts of life. At the Pathology labs, the natural world comes close and captures you.

Responding to an ad in the Metroland newspaper, I was there to volunteer. The Pathology Labs are in charge of diagnosing the cause of animal deaths and working to safeguard the public health of wildlife species. They diagnose wildlife diseases and epidemics, identify contaminants that injure wild species, and investigate crimes against wildlife or any crime involving animal death.

For all the sadness involved in these inquiries, the labs were a happy place. Dr. Ward Stone and his staff were eternally curious and honing their powers of observation. “Here, this is how you tell one bat species from another – see the difference in the little teeth?” “Seagulls aren’t a species, but this little red dot on the beak means it was a herring gull.” The labs were generous in explaining things to novices.

At that time, the labs were abuzz with the concern about prion diseases hitting NY State. Out west there were huge deer and elk casualties due to Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis, also known as “mad deer disease” to lay people. Ward felt that this was not going to take hold in NY State the way it did out west, but he also knew these strange infectious proteins were travelling east fast. The labs were scrambling to process deer brains from sick deer to see if the disease had arrived. Lab techs and scientists would carefully prepare slides with slices of brain prepared with brilliant purple dyes to make the neurons visible for a microscope check.

In the next room were maps covered with pins, showing the distribution of crow deaths from West Nile Virus . In one paper they published about that time, they described the usefulness of different tests for diagnosing West Nile Virus — ( There were so many species affected – from kestrels to cardinals to mockingbirds. But, the crows were most vulnerable and they died in droves. Mapping their fallen helped show the progress of the disease, which, of course, carried grave dangers to humans as well.

Dr. Stone had this unusual view – he fought for decades to stop the pesticides that injure wildlife and compromise human health – but at the same time he knew that stopping mosquito larva was and important part of stopping West Nile. And so he advocated using “dunks” – little toxic rings you put in standing water as larvicides which kill the mosquitoes before they begin to fly. He had the experience and judgment to know the difference between public health emergency and illegitimate pesticide use.

Later on he told me that when the DEC came to put poles out which deer could rub themselves on which were impregnated with chemicals that would kill the ticks –agents of Lyme disease – the community was concerned and objected to the use of pesticides. Only Dr. Stone, because of his uncompromising stance on pesticides in general, could relieve the fears and help the citizens know that this particular application was safe for their community and would help with the Lyme epidemic.

The fact that people trust him is very important to his ability to inform them.

But as you looked through the files and the copies of science papers stacked neatly in the labs, you found that Ward hadn’t only looked into diseases but also things like high speed railways which took a toll on juvenile eagles ( And then, there were always inquiries into chemical contamination in the environment.

At the labs, I got to work with the bones – the environmental education tools of vertebrate anatomy left behind from all the science being done. These bones were soaked in 5% hydrogen peroxide and then scraped to remove the last pieces of flesh. This was a task often reserved for volunteers. Then the bones were categorized and stored so they could be used to respond to requests from teachers and wildlife centers around the state.

The bones were things of beauty. In an amazing feat of design, all vertebrates have the same analogous bones and structures, though formed differently for each species. Thus the sternum of a bat is like a human sternum — a small, dense oblong bone — while the sternum of a goose is large, light and delicate with scalloped edges. Pieces of the skeletons of deer, coyote and muskrat abounded in the bone room. But there were also representatives of many different and less common species such as a snow goose, all varieties of owls and hawks, mink, and black bear.

I learned how tough it is to remove the last piece of brain from the cranial cavity of the deer and how that cavity has its own three dimensional labyrinth which is prettier than any lacework if you truly look at it. To gaze at turtle skeletons, the bones of a mute swan, cow bones, horse and snake bones, beaver skulls, the bones of cooper’s hawks, even some eagle bones and realize they have the same basic structure is a visual lesson in both taxonomy and the connectedness we have with all these sister and brother vertebrate organisms. I had never heard of a short eared owl, but looking at its skeleton, I felt connected to it. I was losing my hearing and so was becoming “short-eared” myself. (Literally, the short-ears refer to the feather tufts on top of the owls head, and aren’t ears at all. Owls have excellent ears on the sides of their heads. )

The labs were a treasure trove– Dr. Stone could not see wildlife as separate from their environment and so their whole environment was the target of study. This made the labs a feat of spectacular work ethic and dedication with countless artifacts and paper trails documenting the life histories of organisms across New York State as well as the status of the habitats upon which they depend.

To me the labs were magic. I implore this state government to value them, keep them and continue to allow an inheritance given to all New Yorkers by Dr. Stone, his staff and his volunteers to remain here to serve wild species and also to increase our understanding of them. The role of wildlife pathology in environmental science and in wildlife preservation is now recognized everywhere. For that we can thank the tireless, curious and ever fascinated-by-life, Dr. Ward Stone .

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Published in August/September Newsletter 2010

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