Story and photos by DEBORAH A. MILES
The skulls of bears, deer and other animals are neatly arranged on a stainless steel table in one of the rooms at the state’s Wildlife Health Unit (WHU) located in Delmar. They have been whitened and are used for teaching purposes at schools or sometimes in a court case. One skull, that of a young bear who weighed less than 100 pounds, had a hole made by a bullet. A bullet fragment that was lodged in the bear’s head was also kept for evidence.
manages the WHU. This PEF member has a vast knowledge of animals, from salamander larva that is one centimeter long to a seven-foot moose. As he specializes in wildlife diseases and forensics, he can identify if an animal died from a virus, trauma, lead poisoning, a bullet or even the wrong food.
For example, it is illegal to feed deer in New York, but some people out of kindness leave corn for these animals, especially in mid-to-late winter. They are unaware that the deer’s stomach during this time period is unable to digest the corn, leading to death.
Hynes noted other interesting job-related things such as the WHU keeps a colony of beetles, which eat the flesh off the bones after some of the animals are necropsied, then the skeleton is added to the WHU’s reference collection.
“This job boils down to being able to pick out things that are abnormal. We need to know the natural history of each species, the normal body condition and normal appearance of their organs. There is a lot of variety with wildlife pathology, unlike human pathology where there is only one species,” Hynes said.
Keeping NY healthy
One of the main tasks of the WHU is to identify and monitor both infectious and non-infectious diseases in wildlife populations. In 1993, when Hynes began his career under the guidance of the state’s former wildlife pathologist, Ward Stone, raccoon rabies was on the upswing.
“We performed hundreds of raccoon necropsies in cases where humans or domestic animals were bitten or exposed, so county health departments could determine if people needed a rabies shot,” Hynes said. “There are many zoonotic diseases that transmit from wildlife to people such as rabies, Lyme disease, tularemia and others, so there is a human aspect involved.”
Hynes and another wildlife biologist, Joseph Okoniewski, still deal with rabies on a daily basis. They also monitor for less common diseases such as tularemia, also known as rabbit fever. Besides rabbits, the disease is found in muskrats and beavers.
“If you are handling animals that have tularemia and are not wearing gloves, you could contract it and potentially die if you are not diagnosed and treated. There are not many cases of tularemia in New York, but there have been recent cases on Martha’s Vineyard,” Hynes said.
The WHU also played an integral role in the identification of the West Nile virus. Hynes said at the onset of the virus in 1999, people were misdiagnosed with St. Louis encephalitis at the same time NY birds were dying of an unknown virus that was eventually identified as West Nile.
“We worked with the state and county health departments for West Nile virus surveillance. Hundreds of dead birds were submitted to our lab and we selected the ones who were in the best shape and right species to test,” Hynes said.
The WHU works in partnership with Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Animal Health Diagnostic Center through a federal grant that funds wildlife specialists such as the pathologists, a veterinarian, disease ecologist and support staff.
“In most of our cases we can determine the cause of death just by doing the necropsy,” Hynes said. “We may order more tests at Cornell to confirm what we are seeing or to figure out what has happened. Specific tests are ordered on every animal just because of its species, such as West Nile and avian influenza on bald eagles.”
Flying high and low
Hynes said the bald eagle is no longer on the endangered species list. In 1976 through 1988, eaglets were brought from Alaska to hacking towers in NY and fed by eagle puppets so they would not imprint on humans. They are still flourishing and many nest along the Hudson River. The downfall is they often eat road-killed or train-killed animals, and then get struck by vehicles or trains.
“They are not like a hummingbird that can just take off. It takes a few wing flaps to get all that poundage moving.
“Other causes of death include lead poisoning from ingesting lead bullet fragments in discarded deer or coyote carcasses, injuries sustained during territory defense and electrocution at power transmission lines,” Hynes said.
On a table in the necropsy room, Hynes examined a 12-pound eagle. He said their bodies, unlike the deer and moose that are disposed in a WHU incinerator, are sent to the National Eagle Repository in Colorado.
“When I do an eagle necropsy, I include an inventory and account for all the feathers,” Hynes said. “Native Americans are on a waiting list for their feathers. It is unlawful to own any part of this bird unless you are Native American. One eagle feather can be worth $100 on the black market.”
For years to come
Approximately 1,000 necropsies are performed annually at the WHU. Hynes trains DEC wildlife staff about emerging diseases and how to wear and remove protective gear. He also instructs conservation officers in forensic evidence handling, showing them how to collect and handle DNA samples and preserve them for evidence.
“There is very little danger to people from healthy, wild animals in New York.” Hynes said. “DEC has a catch phrase, ‘A fed bear is a dead bear.’ What that means is a bear used to being fed by people will lose its fear and eventually be euthanized for public safety.
“Human health and wildlife health are interconnected. We work together to have a better surveillance system. And we have put in place a system to quickly identify diseases and react to them before they get out of hand. It’s our goal to ensure that NY has sustainable, robust and diverse wildlife populations for future generations to enjoy.”
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