CSI: Critter Sickness Investigations

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Did you know that the San Diego Zoo has its own team of private investigators? These “private eyes” don’t patrol the Zoo for criminals, but search for diseases that could harm animals. On Wednesday, InternQuest had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Wesley Siniard. Dr. Siniard is finishing her residency at the San Diego Zoo as a Veterinary Pathologist. A veterinary pathologist studies diseases and the process of diseases through animals that have passed away. The benefits of pathology can include learning why an animal died, if the animal had a disease that could affect other healthy animals, how diseases can be prevented in the future, and how the disease can be linked to possible applications in human medicine. So, hold on to your trench coat and magnifying glass, or in the case of a pathologist, lab coat and microscope, because we are about to dive into the world of veterinary pathology.

The first step in solving the mystery of an animal death is called anatomic pathology. This is like when a detective investigates the scene of the crime. A pathologist looks for general details by performing a necropsy. A necropsy is cutting open the corpse and examining the inside to see if anything looks out of the ordinary. Just like a crime scene, the bigger the area, the longer it takes to fully analyze every tissue and organ. A necropsy can take a few minutes, when examining a fish or bird, to around two days if it is an elephant. After examining the crime scene, a detective doesn’t just say “case closed” and walk away. They take evidence from the area to bring back for examination. Similarly, Dr. Siniard takes samples from each part of the animal to bring back to the lab for further investigation before finishing the necropsy.

After gathering evidence from the field, a detective will brush objects and examine them closely for fingerprints, or even run DNA tests in the lab. Pathologists also look for fingerprints but not the same kind detectives hope to find. To find these “fingerprints”, pathologist first cut the samples into smaller pieces. Dr. Siniard sends these samples to the Zoo’s Histology Department. The Histology Department converts large samples from necropsy into slides that can be studied under a microscope. After receiving the slides from histology, Dr. Siniard then examines these slides carefully under a microscope. What does she look for? The fingerprints of a disease. For the most part, these fingerprints are usually easy to find since they appear as something out of the ordinary within the microscopic makeup of the sample. Much like a necropsy, the amount of time a pathologist spends on this portion of investigation depends on the complexity of the disease present and the skill of the pathologist. An experienced pathologist can quickly determine whether or not there are abnormalities in the sample and can finish in as little as twenty seconds if nothing is out of the ordinary. However, if there seems to be a disease or parasite in the sample, it may take a pathologist up to an hour or more trying to match the slide sample to the proper ailment. Once the culprit is discovered a detective reports his findings to the police so the criminal can be arrested. Similarly, pathologists report their findings to the veterinarians and keepers at the Zoo. This ensures the disease can be properly treated for future cases.

So how can people, like you and me, help pathologists? One great way to lighten the workload of doctors, like Dr. Siniard, who tends to receive 10-15 cases per week, is to prevent objects from entering an animal’s exhibit or natural habitat. Dr. Siniard sadly reported that coins ingested by animals, like ducks, often causes premature deaths. Keeping your change in your pockets, straws in your drinks, and caps on your water bottles is an excellent way to work together with Pathologists to ensure that the Zoo’s animals can live long and healthy lives.

Noah, Real World Team
Week Four, Fall Session 2018

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  1. Courtney Harrel