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Deborah McCauley on NPR Podcast July 19th 2019

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Sarah M.: Deborah McCauley is a veterinarian, but she doesn’t treat fluffy the cat or sparky the dog, she treats tigers and wolverines and rhinos. McCauley is founder and executive director of VIEW, a nonprofit that’s focused on treating diseases in endangered wildlife. 

Deborah M.: I had been working for a decade as a wildlife veterinarian in Montana, in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and I continued to see that there was a missing piece to conservation. Conservation largely approaches saving our endangered wildlife by habitat encroachment, poaching investigating behavior, counting numbers and climate change. Although those are really important issues, wildlife health is missing in our approach to including it in the toolkit for conservation. 

Sarah M.: What do you mean wildlife health? Do you mean individual animals are stressed and we need to care for them? 

Deborah M.: It’s more, I would say prevention, a disease surveillance program. A comprehensive disease surveillance program is critical to helping our endangered wildlife, so investigating the animals that are on our priority endangered species list or threatened species list, also the diseases that most affect those animals, what diseases are wiping out a whole population. The saiga antelope in Kazakhstan, 210,000 animals died within a fortnight due to disease. In that case, there wasn’t enough infrastructure and disease surveillance programs on the front end to understand if there was an issue, but yet tens of millions of dollars was put into anti-poaching efforts and more land, but disease was not included or investigating disease was not included in their conservation package. 

Sarah M.: Tell me about saiga antelope. 

Deborah M.: Saiga antelope, one of the veterinarians who worked on that project in London and works with us in Nepal and it was an international story, and within two weeks time, 70% of the global endangered wildlife population of the saiga antelope died due to disease. There were dying or dead saiga antelope littered across the whole landscape, I actually didn’t see any live animals at all. I saw this same picture when I was working as a wildlife veterinarian in Montana with a big horn sheep local die off, and that does happen. It’s been happening for decades in the rocky mountains, where they will interact with domestic sheep, cause no sickness and domestic sheep at all, but will wipe out up to 90% of that wild sheep population and from a disease that the domestic sheep share with wild sheep. 

Sarah M.: You worked out west on the big horn sheep project, what other projects? 

Deborah M.: I worked for wolverines and we tracked up to 10,000 feet to capture wolverines on islands of snow and always when the grizzly bears are sleeping because if you trap them, we have to bait them and the grizzly bears we don’t want to have to interact with at the time. It’s often eight hours of hiking up to the top of a mountain and doing surgery in the middle of the night. We would have to do surgery because wolverines had this thick neck and tiny little head and you can’t fit a GPS collar on them, so they needed to have a veterinary surgeon to be able to implant these small radio transmitters into their abdominal cavity. Then I’d sew them up really quickly after anesthesia and wake them up and away they would go. I was also very fortunate, it was a perfect job for me because I was an ultra runner and I just loved to climb mountains, that’s what I like to do. I was able to combine my passion of running with my passion of saving a threatened species. 

Sarah M.: You didn’t know you liked wolverines until then, right? 

Deborah M.: Absolutely, but I love them. Tigers and wolverines are definitely my favorite animals. 

Sarah M.: Tell me about wolverines. 

Deborah M.: Not Too many people have touched them as much as I have. They definitely have their big claws that you would think of and these ferocious mouths. They’re lovely when they’re sleeping, but funny, interesting thing, they’re beautiful little animals, but they have a very thick oily coat and they’re stinky. I actually like that stinky smell, I don’t know why. We would often be doing surgery, I’d have a headlamp on my head and they would hold a heater over my hands so I could obviously do sterile surgery. We were a very small team, but we would either check out, often snowshoe out, ski out and when I was pregnant helicopter out to the dens, and we’d capture the wolverines. We were able to find … There was unlimited trapping of wolverines at the time and we found that there was about 300 wolverines in the lower 48 so they need to have a little bit more protection. 

Sarah M.: There are only 300 in America? 

Deborah M.: Yes. The Endangered Species Act needs to have research on it first, in order to understand if an animal can go on the Endangered Species Act, that’s why we did the work. Since there’s so many animals, endangered species, on Endangered Species Act, there’s only a limited amount that can go on them. 

Sarah M.: When you talk about the habitat, it reminds me of a proposal not so long ago by the great biologist E. O. Wilson, he calls it half the earth. His outlandish, exciting visionary proposal is that we set aside half the earth to preserve it for habitat. 

Deborah M.: Yeah, but as we know that’s not actually realistic, we have so many people. For example, in Nepal … There are 30 million people that live in Nepal and there is I think 6.2 animals per person, and we share disease with our animals, in our wildlife, 60% of diseases, infectious diseases, humans share with animals. Therefore, if you think of it in the other way around, how agriculture, animals and humans living in a very close quarter, where there are endangered wildlife can share disease with the endangered wildlife. Through veterinary medicine, it’s very hopeful in that we have … Once we investigate diseases that we need to mitigate, then there are preventative and treatment measures. 

Sarah M.: What are the wildlife animals in Nepal that you have treated? 

Deborah M.: It’s wonderful, they have Bengal tigers, greater one-horned rhinos, they have red pandas, they have snow leopards, they have an array of exotic birds and reptiles. It’s a really biodiverse area in Nepal. In Chitwan National Park, they have about 200 Bengal tigers and so what we’re trying to do is investigate what types of diseases they are exposed to. Our organization, VIEW, Veterinary Initiative for Endangered Wildlife, we’re about initiating a program so it can be sustainable within a country. We’ve been able to help the wildlife veterinarian there, develop a program in Chitwan National Park to be able to collect samples of tigers when they have conflict in the buffer zone to investigate the diseases that these tigers are exposed to. 

Sarah M.: Have you trapped tigers? 

Deborah M.: It’s one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. When you want to capture a tiger or understand where they are in the forest, you obviously look for the paw prints on the sand, you look to see if there’s any kills, you look for scratch marks on the trees beside you, but definitely the most interesting way to find a tiger is to … If there’s a scratch mark, they’re often pee on that tree or on the sand around it and if you smell their pee, it smells like popcorn. The way one catches a tiger is you go out about 10 elephants, there’s a darter, so they bait the tiger and we sweep the forest and funnel that tiger towards the darter. That darter will anesthetize that tiger and will either correlate or investigate. We never ever take samples unless they’re being captured for what research reasons or for management purposes. 

Sarah M.: I saw a video online once where a tiger who seemed to be from fairly far away made fast ferocious leaps on top of somebody on an elephant, so they’re very agile. 

Deborah M.: That’s a funny story that’s very personal to me. The night before the first time I ever went out to capture a tiger, they showed me that tiger picture, you’re in the jungle and there’s grass, really, really tall grass, because the tallest grass in the world is in India and in Nepal. There’s a [foreign language 00:23:22] which sits at the front of the elephant and the tourist is taking a video, and you see grass and nothing, nothing, nothing. Then, literally feet in front of the elephant, a tiger jumps out on top of the elephant’s head and attacks the elephant and the [foreign language 00:23:36]. I was shown that the night before we were about to capture the first elephant and I thought, “Well, I’m the vet, I’ll stay on the truck where the oxygen tanks are and all that equipment.” 

Deborah M.: But because it was Asia and they’re really wonderful about being great hosts, let’s say, I got on the first elephant in the front of the pack, in front of everybody and I was like, “Wait a second, I didn’t expect to be on the first elephant.” We did see that the tiger right there, but I was not attacked obviously. 

Sarah M.: But you had fear. 

Deborah M.: Every time we capture it. I usually cast her ferocious animals, so almost every time there is adrenaline, I would say, darting an animal every time, but that’s the excitement in it. 

Sarah M.: Who did you find were your mentors in this field as you were coming on? 

Deborah M.: One of the key people was Dr. Gretchen Coffman, who is now my partner, but at the time she was Director of Conservation Medicine at Tufts University and she has a very comprehensive, huge love for endangered wildlife. She actually has a sister that lives in Nepal and she had been working in Nepal in the vet school for many years so we brought the university and the field wildlife work together to develop VIEW and create a comprehensive program where we partner with not only the people in the field doing the conservation work, the university, which is only 12 kilometers from our laboratory in Chitwan and also the government. 

Deborah M.: One of the key things, I think amazing about VIEW is that we developed a database, a wildlife health database, tailored specifically for people that work in the field and endangered wildlife, it’s the first in the world. I had been wanting to do this for a really long time, but couldn’t find any company or software company to help us, so Gretchen and I bootstrapped our way to creating a wildlife health database because it wasn’t available. What we’ve done is, as if you would go to a human hospital and there’s a database that puts your name and your medical history and your medical ailments in that database, it’s the same in our database. A tiger gets a mobilized, we put a number to that tiger, we microchip that tiger and we also know who is the one that had that interaction. 

Deborah M.: You can upload photographs from that interaction, and then if it’s sick and it goes into the hospital, we have a whole database on following what immobilization drugs were used, what treatments were used, what worked, what didn’t. Or, if an animal dies and a necropsy was done, every single sample, as if you went to the supermarket and scanned for numbers onto a scanner, you have a database that will investigate and follow all the biological samples of that tiger. 

Sarah M.: How many people are working with VIEW now, this organization and what do you want? How do you want to grow? 

Deborah M.: VIEW created a template in Nepal because we saw the need, we created a template for building a comprehensive wildlife program that’s sustainable within a country. Not only do we have a field laboratory and an investigative laboratory and a hospital that’s being built, we’re also including it into the government. This can be taken to other places across the world, we’ve been just asked to go to India to not only one of their tiger reserves, but six of their tiger reserves and also to go to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We’re just starting our work in the GYE, working with Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park. 

Sarah M.: What do you need from us? 

Deborah M.: Definitely support. We definitely are on a bootstrapping grassroots programs, so VIEW needs funding to be able to get veterinarians, to be able to work on a global scale, to be included into the conservation toolkit. What’s happening with conservation is excellent, but this also is a piece that needs to be included, and if we can continue to do this, we can make a difference. We’re already watching and making a difference. 

Sarah M.: Deborah McCauley is founder and executive director of VIEW, a nonprofit that’s focused on treating diseases and endangered wildlife. This is With Good Reason, we’ll be right back.

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