By Mark Cunningham
In Florida, FWC free-ranging wildlife veterinarians are key members of a statewide effort to detect and control diseases that threaten fish and wildlife, domestic animals, and people. Stressed by altered and fragmented habitats, environmental contaminants, toxins and global climate change, Florida’s fish and wildlife populations are increasingly vulnerable to disease. Also, Florida’s geographic location, subtropical climate and large human population put the state at high risk for wildlife diseases brought in by exotic and invasive species, increased global travel, and translocation of wildlife. Staying on top of these threats requires surveillance, prevention, and expert technical assistance.
Fish and Wildlife Health Program Objectives
The objectives of the Fish and Wildlife Health program in Florida include:
- prevention of disease introduction or spread
- early detection of diseases
- assessing disease risks to Florida’s fish and wildlife and, where relevant, threats to domestic animals and public health
- responding appropriately if diseases are detected and/or introduced
- providing technical expertise (including expertise regarding animal welfare) (FWDST, 2012). The FWC Aquatic Health unit focuses on fish and aquatic mammals. The Wildlife Health unit focuses on terrestrial wildlife health including mammal, avian, reptile, and amphibian populations along with their ecosystems.
Wildlife Disease Surveillance
The FWC Wildlife Health unit conducts surveillance for several wildlife diseases.
- Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) FWC monitors hunter-harvested waterfowl and live-captured waterfowl and investigates bird deaths for HPAI, a disease that can cause human deaths. Using an on-line form at http://MyFWC.com/bird, the public or other agencies can report bird deaths. The information is relayed to veterinarians and biologists in real time.
- Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Deer This disease, believed to be caused by a prion, is similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy and scrapie. CWD is the only infectious prion disease known to occur in wildlife. Active surveillance involves random sampling of hunter-killed and road-killed deer. Passive or targeted surveillance involves necropsy and testing of deer found sick or dead of unknown causes. The public, other agencies, and biologists can report suspicious cases by calling the CWD hotline at 1-866-293-9282 (1-866-CWD-WATCH). The line is monitored seven days a week, 365 days a year. Necropsies are conducted by FWC wildlife veterinarians and wildlife health biologists at the FWC Wildlife Research Laboratory in Gainesville, FL.
- Florida panther disease surveillance FWC monitors the health of this endangered subspecies by periodically capturing and conducting complete physical examinations of young and adult panthers. All panthers found dead undergo complete necropsy.
Wildlife Disease Prevention/Response
Managing or mitigating wildlife diseases is also an important responsibility for FWC veterinarians. As with domestic animal diseases, prevention is far more effective than treatment, and this is especially true for free-ranging wildlife populations as once a disease has been introduced there is often little that can be done to eliminate it. Regulations and outreach/education are important tools for preventing wildlife diseases. Vaccination as a preventive measure is rarely used in wildlife populations but can be useful in some endangered species.
- CWD regulations and outreach
Two important regulations designed to prevent the introduction of CWD include the prohibition on importation of live cervids and on the transport of hunter-killed carcasses from CWD-positive states. Press releases, notices in hunting regulations, and other outreach programs are also used to help prevent the inadvertent movement of CWD-infected deer into Florida.
- FELV vaccination of Florida panthers
Vaccinating Florida panthers against feline leukemia virus (FeLV) may have helped end an FeLV outbreak in 2004 (Cunningham et al., 2008). Continued FeLV vaccination of live-captured panthers is designed to help stop the chain of transmission if the disease spills over into the panther population.
- New World Screwworm outbreak in Key deer
In 2016, FWC and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) veterinarians assisted with the outbreak of New World Screwworm in Key deer in the Florida Keys. Veterinarians performed humane euthanasia as well as capture, immobilization and treatment of infested deer.
FWC free-ranging wildlife veterinarians conduct forensic necropsies, provide wildlife immobilization and anesthesia, and occasionally surgically implant radio telemetry transmitters. Veterinarians also address wildlife animal welfare issues including proper methods for humane euthanasia as well as establishing agency protocols for capture, immobilization and other management or research activities. Although wildlife rehabilitation is not a large focus of Florida’s Wildlife Health program or other government wildlife agencies, in cases of endangered species such as the Florida panther, rehabilitation of injured or orphaned panthers and release back into the wild can serve as a management tool to help recover the population.
In summary, FWC’s free-ranging wildlife veterinarians perform a variety of services including disease surveillance, disease prevention and response, and technical assistance. Given the wide range of skills needed and the diversity of species they work with, the free-ranging wildlife veterinarian must be able to work as part of a team and draw on the expertise of wildlife biologists and other veterinarians.
Cunningham, M. W., M. A. Brown, et al. 2008. Epizootiology and management of feline leukemia virus in the Florida panther. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 44(3): 537-552.
Fish and Wildlife Disease Standing Team. 2012. Fish and Wildlife Disease Standing Team Charter. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, St. Petersburg, Florida, 4 pp.