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What is a wild animal?

Educating the next generation of wild animal experts
13
Feb

What is a wild animal?

Dr Tammy Shadbolt is a UK veterinary surgeon with an Honours degree in veterinary conservation medicine and a Masters in wild animal health. She splits her time working with companion animals in veterinary practice in London and teaching postgraduate Masters students at the Royal Veterinary College. She is also working towards her PhD, researching a new contagious cancer affecting endangered Tasmanian devils. In our latest blog she gives us her insight into teaching the next generation of wild animal experts.

 

“What is a wild animal?” I ask the group of postgraduate students positioned around the table. They find my question both confusing and perhaps slightly condescending. These individuals are mature professionals, biologists and veterinarians who have already attained some experience working with ‘wild’ animals. My question however, is designed to kick-start a series of problem-based learning (PBL) sessions focusing on captive wild animal health and welfare. Five minutes later they are engaged in a lively discussion dissecting a potential definition based on both opinion and literary evidence. The dictionary explanation would suggest that a wild animal must be ‘living in the natural environment’ – ‘not domesticated’. How then does this alter both the way in which we view and manage the large number of animals in wildlife parks and zoological collections around the world?

The problem-based learning format is a small group teaching method employed alongside lectures and practical sessions to deliver the parallel Masters programs in Wild Animal Biology and Wild Animal Health, run jointly through the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Students study a number of modules on subjects such as conservation biology, animal health and disease and ex-situ wild animal management (protecting an endangered species outside its natural habitat- for example in a zoo).

Each PBL uses a real-world scenario and students are encouraged to respond by identifying the ‘problems’ and seeking to understand the potential ‘solutions’. Both teaching format and scenario initially cause students significant frustration – and this is not unintentional. As wild animal biologists and vets, many aspire to prevent species extinction, outbreaks of emerging infectious disease and to improve enrichment for zoo animals. In few fields are the problems to be solved so ill-defined and daunting. To work as wild animal experts, they will need to acquire not only a deep understanding of their discipline but the flexibility of mind to communicate and collaborate with multidisciplinary teams. They will be challenged by limited funds, a lack of evidence-based research and vastly differing viewpoints on animal welfare.

Over the course of the morning they question whether training an elephant to raise a foot for veterinary examination is a vital tool in safeguarding an individual’s health and welfare, or whether we are slowly interfering with evolution, enforcing domestication on this most impressive of ‘wild’ beasts. They scrutinize evidence that suggests funds raised from the zoo-visiting public can be channeled successfully into conservation efforts and they consider the impact of withdrawing this funding stream should elephants be banned from captive collections altogether.

After three hours I wrap up the session. I sense their eagerness to continue. They will scour the literature with unquenchable curiosity before our next session. I turn to the youngest member of the group and ask, “So did you conclude what a wild animal is?” All look up and she smiles, “Behind the simplest question lies a host of complex problems!”

Image © Tammy Shadbolt- The author conducting research with Tasmanian devils in Australia

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