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Illinois Alumna See Global Health Implications in Zoo Patients
by Kelly Coleman

What does a chameleon with reproductive problems have to do with public health and safety?

For Dr. Jennifer (Erdtmann) Langan ('96), this is not a riddle, but one of the intriguing questions for which she seeks answers as the veterinary resident for the Conservation Medicine Center of Chicago (CMCC). The CMCC is a collaboration among the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo; Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine; and the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

CMCC brings together professionals from many disciplines, including scientists, clinicians, environmentalists, and information gatherers, to study the comprehensive relationship among animals, people, and the environment; how animals and people each affect the ecosystem; and how changes in the ecosystem affect the health of all species.

For the past year, Dr. Langan has been working with the CMCC to provide clinical care to Brookfield Zoo animals. Her position gives her the opportunity to notice firsthand trends of disease in animal species. Through early detection of diseases that may jump from one species to another, Dr. Langan and her colleagues at the CMCC are better equipped to raise societal awareness of potential public health, food safety, animal health, and environmental health issues.

[Dr. Tom Meehan (left), and Dr. Jennifer Langan work on 5-day-old Tiguak, a 500-gram baby polar bear]
Dr. Jennifer Langan holds 5-day-old Tiguak, a 500-gram baby polar bear with hypothermia and low blood glucose. Dr. Tom Meehan (left), Head of Veterinary Services Department at Brookfield Zoo, administers treatment. Veterinarians stepped in after the bear's mother failed to care for her.

Clinicians like Dr. Langan treat many different species and notice changes in the conditions of animals--for instance, the chameleon with reproductive problems. In mid-December, the chameleon was awaiting treatment in the intensive care unit at Brookfield Zoo's animal hospital because animal caretakers had noticed that the creature was acting sluggish. Through Dr. Langan's examination and testing, a reproductive problem was discovered. The chameleon recovered with antibiotics, fluids, and supplemental feeling.

"We are now hoping she breeds with our spectacular male and lays eggs within the next few weeks," reports Dr. Langan.

Dr. Langan not only provides daily treatment and care for animals but she also studies them to learn about and monitor diseases. CMCC provides Dr. Langan with the tools she needs to detect viruses, study them, share information with others, and ideally prevent problems in the future.

Center scientists hope that the next Lyme disease or AIDS virus never emerges, but in case such diseases do, the CMCC system is in place to detect and study them.

Dr. Langan estimates that 70 percent of her day is spent doing clinical work. In a year's time she tends to 650 cases involving 250 species. A typical day can find her treating a 10-gram shrew before lunch and a 2,000-pound rhinoceros in the afternoon. The rest of her day might be spent setting goals and seeking ways to improve and enhance the safety and quality of life of the zoo animals. She also works on conservation proposals and manuscripts to convey information to the public, educates zoo docents and volunteers, and keeps abreast of the latest scientific literature.

Dr. Langan started working with wildlife through the College's Wildlife Medical Clinic. She spent portions of her senior year in veterinary school participating in externships with Brookfield Zoo and Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. These externships were essential to her finding work in zoo medicine, according to Dr. Langan. Her exotic animal studies at Illinois also gave her an excellent introduction to alternative species.

[Dr. Langan performs a physical on 2 year old Marty]
Marty, 2 years old, receives a pre-shipment physical from Dr. Langan before being sent to another zoo to be paired with a female. Marty and Tiguak (shown above) are both offspring of Brookfield Zoo's breeding pair of polar bears.After her graduation in 1996, Dr. Langan completed an internship in small animal medicine and emergency medicine at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston and a residency in zoo and wildlife medicine at the University of Tennessee.

Dr. Langan then moved to the Chicago area with her husband, Dr. George Langan ('96), and entered the residency with CMCC. She says, "I was looking to stay in the zoo community and still had good relations with people from my Brookfield externship. And conservation medicine is up and coming."

Part of Dr. Langan's role in conservation medicine is to educate post-graduate veterinarians about the latest scientific findings. She also works with second- to fourth-year veterinary students from the University of Illinois who are doing clinical rotations as part of the College's Zoological Pathology Program, which is housed at the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood, Ill. Students become familiar with zoo literature and research and do routine activities such as vaccinate, restrain, and anesthetize.

The medical school provides opportunities to do comparative studies, such as comparing blood values among different species and looking for evidence of emerging diseases in the zoo's collection of birds versus the collection of wildlife. The medical school also has access to equipment and tests that the zoo does not, such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and specialty labs.

Dr. Langan says, "The three institutions within the CMCC have resources that together will foster new work and open doors for collaborative research." As a clinical practitioner, Dr. Langan is excited to be at the forefront of veterinary medicine and to guide students in understanding what zoos do and why. She hopes to give back an appreciation for the environment and the species that share it with humans.

The work of the CMCC will help to develop classes and seminars for veterinarians and students. Those who benefit from the classes will be another source of information for society, and perhaps messengers of the importance of ecological responsibility.

The possibility that her grandchildren may not be able to see or appreciate certain animal species motivates Dr. Langan to continue to collaborate on public health and conservation issues.

"We have the opportunity to make a significant conservation impact on animals and humans. My job here brought that to light. We can make a difference."

Institutions Unite for Conservation Medicine Research and Education
"Until we know how diseases are spread and carried, we won't have data that allow us to make decisions, policy, and law," says Dr. Lee Cera ('75), director of comparative medicine for Loyola University Health System and assistant dean of comparative medicine for Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Dr. Cera was instrumental in creating the Conservation Medicine Center of Chicago (CMCC), which unites the Stritch School of Medicine, the Chicago Zoological Society, and our College. She notes the need for such a center as advances in technology and communication shrink the distances that once protected us from the diseases of other cultures or other species.

The CMCC provides a forum for collaboration among an eclectic group of people from scientists to journalists to politicians. The interrelationships of species and diseases are observed and studied for possible solutions, and then the general public is educated about these diseases.

According to Dr. Cera, if the right group of professionals is brought together, diseases and species can be studied in terms of global perspectives, not quick fixes or easy solutions. For example, when the West Nile virus was discovered by the medical and pathology team at the Bronx Zoo, it was thought that mosquitoes were spreading the disease. Pesticides released into the area killed the mosquitoes, but then it was discovered that crows were the actual culprits. Would the next solution be to kill the crows?

Conservation medicine seeks knowledge from which to develop practical solutions that will benefit as many animal species as possible. Dr. Cera hopes that journalists will do more to educate the public on these solutions, so that people can concentrate on the best solution for the environment rather than be swayed by sensationalism in the media.

The CMCC has been in operation for two years. It now has received funding for research and for building an infrastructure. The labs at both Loyola and Brookfield Zoo will be furnished with equipment to study the cell-to-cell transmission of disease, funded in part through a $960,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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