I knew that I wanted to study abroad as a veterinary student before even starting the veterinary program at Illinois, so I was ecstatic to find Conservet, a non-profit organization that exposes veterinary students to conservation medicine with an intensive, on-site workshop in the rich ecosystems of Costa Rica. The founder, Dr. Raymond Tarpley, has run the well-known Marvets program (which focuses on marine animal medicine) for fifteen years, and recently founded Conservet after seeing a need to expose veterinary students to the complexities of ecosystem health and underline the importance of veterinarians in conservation. Conservet was especially attractive for me, as I have always loved ecology and conservation, but have found it difficult to explore those fields in the traditional veterinary curriculum. What better place to study conservation than one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet?
Our research first brought us to the Texas A&M Soltis Center in San Isidro, which resides on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. For two weeks we learned the ecology of Mesoamerican rainforests, especially as it pertains to local birds, bats, and frogs. We mist-netted birds and, in partnership with the local veterinary college, swabbed them for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). Surveillance of HPAI in wild birds in Costa Rica is critical, as infected North American birds may migrate to Central America for the winter. Limited funding for research has resulted in limited local surveillance of HPAI, so it was rewarding to aid the bigger effort. Similarly, we screened bats for parasites, and kept a record of the species we found for the Soltis Center’s records. I have always been interested in bats, so it was fascinating to learn about the ecology of these unique animals from experts in a hands-on setting.
We expanded our research to local farms to survey diseases of epidemiological interest, such as HPAI, Chikungunya, and West Nile (in chickens, goats, and horses, respectively). Beyond improving our clinical skills, it was a great opportunity to conduct epidemiological research as well to meet local farm owners.
After two weeks in San Isidro we moved to the Monteverde region on the Pacific side of the country. By contrast with the Soltis Center (a rainforest), the Monteverde Institute is considered a cloud forest. Instead of receiving its precipitation from rain, the majority of its precipitation comes from vapor condensing on vegetation as clouds settle in the mountains. As a result, the ecology of the Monteverde Institue is quite different from that of the Soltis center (despite being only 100 miles apart). This difference allowed us to repeat surveys of local wildlife to compare the two ecosystems. The species differences from the Caribbean side we recorded were incredible! At the new site we were also able to collect the infamous assassin bug at local farms and screen them for Trypanosoma cruzi, or Chagas disease. We identified several positive specimens, which we reported to local health officials to improve surveillance and awareness of the tropical disease.
I enjoyed my time in Costa Rica – expanding my understanding of conservation medicine, connecting with many wonderful people, immersing myself in a new culture, and even dusting off my Spanish skills. Upon leaving San José, I promised myself that I would return someday as a veterinarian working towards conservation and ecosystem health.
—Claire Butkus, Class of 2017