Tufts Wildlife Clinic Celebrates 40 Years of Impact and Service

The clinic, which opened in 1983, is reflecting on the veterinarians and collaborators who make it an invaluable resource and looking ahead to a new era of caring for local wildlife

Recently, Maureen Murray, D.V.M., DABVP, V03, director of Tufts Wildlife Clinic, stood outside the Shalin Liu Healing Cage, preparing to release a juvenile peregrine falcon back into the wild. It was migrating from the Arctic to South America for the winter, when it was brought to the clinic cold and thin. In this case, they were lucky, Murray says. It had no injuries and it tested negative for avian influenza, so they fed it and flight conditioned it in the Healing Cage until it was strong enough to continue its voyage.

For Murray, who is the Gabriel and Valerie Schmergel Term Director in Wildlife Medicine and an associate clinical professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, the excitement of releasing an animal back into the wild never gets old. And as she watched the young bird fly off, she reflected on how far the clinic has come since it started 40 years ago.

The idea began with Albert M. Jonas, D.V.M., founding dean of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, who wanted to launch a wildlife clinic on the North Grafton campus. Associate Professor Emeritus Mark Pokras, D.V.M., V84, was a veterinary student at the time with a strong interest in wildlife and exotic animal medicine, and he was a student member of the selection committee to choose the founding director, Charles Sedgwick, D.V.M.

“He was brilliant, one of the world's brightest and most talented clinicians, boarded in multiple areas—sort of the grandfather of zoo animal medicine. Tufts was amazingly lucky to get him,” recalls Pokras, who served as director of Tufts Wildlife Clinic from 1995 to 2008.

One of the first challenges was to renovate a small brown farmhouse into what would become the first home of the clinic. But it needed massive amounts of work, and the budget was small.

“‘Doc’ Sedgwick, as we called him, was good at motivating people,” Pokras chuckles. “He would get students and their families to volunteer on weekends. I remember building the first cages in the snow. It really was a wonderful experience.”

Officially established in 1983, today Tufts Wildlife Clinic provides medical care for thousands of orphaned, sick, and injured New England wildlife each year. It serves as a regional information resource on wildlife health for the public, state and federal agencies, wildlife biologists, veterinarians, and health professionals, among others. They also work closely with wildlife rehabilitators, animal control officers, and other organizations.

The clinic, located in the Bernice Barbour Wildlife Building since 2001, is designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a regional facility for the care of federally threatened and endangered species. Over the years, the clinic has treated and rehabilitated many different types of animals, from reptiles to birds to mammals, while publishing ground-breaking research and teaching the next generation of veterinary professionals. Cummings School is unique among veterinary schools in being the only one with a required rotation in wildlife medicine for all fourth-year students.

It takes a lot of hands—and even more dollars—to care for so many wild animals each year. From the start, donor support has been crucial to the clinic’s development.

“The level of care provided by Tufts Wildlife Clinic is made possible in large part due to the generous support of donors like Shalin Liu, who recently committed to establishing the Shalin Liu Professorship in Wildlife Medicine,” says Alastair Cribb, D.V.M., Ph.D., dean of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “We are grateful for her philanthropy over the years, and we want to take this occasion to acknowledge the important contributions of our many generous donors.”

Timeline: Highlights from History

An Enormous Increase in Patients

In 1986, the Wildlife Clinic treated 522 patients. In 2019, the clinic treated 4,410 patients—the most patients ever in a year to date. The growth is due, in part, to a greater awareness among the public of the clinic as a resource.

“Also, there’s obviously a need,” says Florina Tseng, D.V.M., associate dean for Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Climate at Cummings School, and director of Tufts Wildlife Clinic from 2008 until 2020, when she passed the baton to Murray.

Most animals come to the clinic because of some sort of human interaction, Tseng says. While some patients are sick from infectious disease, such as a virus like avian influenza, which is currently causing  the death of an unprecedented number of wild birds, many suffer traumatic injuries—they are hit by cars, tangled in fishing line or soccer nets, or wounded by dogs and cats.

Sometimes well-meaning people bring in healthy animal babies like birds, squirrels, or bunnies that they believe were orphaned. When this happens, the clinic generally makes sure the babies are stabilized and transfers them to licensed wildlife rehabilitators. But at the height of baby season, the clinic employs the help of veterinary students who sign up to assist with their care, “which is great experience for the students,” Tseng adds. “However, we mainly concentrate on animals with medical and surgical needs.”

Collaborations with wildlife rehabilitators and with organizations such as the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) have been vital to the Wildlife Clinic’s mission. For example, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Wildlife Clinic took part in a MassWildlife program to band, monitor, and track bald eagles across Massachusetts. More recently, MassWildlife brought a bear cub that had been hit by a car  to the Wildlife Clinic, where a broken femur was surgically repaired.

“We consider Tufts Wildlife Clinic a strong and critical collaborator in wildlife conservation, and we’ve worked closely with them for a long time in numerous ways, from wildlife rehabilitation to emergencies to specialty care,” says Eve Schlüter, Ph.D., AG03, deputy director of MassWildlife. “They perform major surgeries for some of the animals we need help with, they perform testing for us for diseases like avian flu, and we consult closely with them around rare and imperiled species.”

“Tufts Wildlife Clinic is the only facility in Massachusetts that MassWildlife allows to take in bear cubs,” says Dave Wattles, Ph.D., bear biologist for MassWildlife. “For example, if we recover newborn cubs when the mother is killed under some circumstances, often we take them to the clinic—at any time of the day or night—to keep until they’re ready to go to a bear rehabilitation facility in New Hampshire.”

Bear cubs need intensive care and feeding, especially if they’re in the first three months out of the den, and Wattles says the clinic “takes it on last minute without hesitation. They are a fantastic resource for us.”

Wildlife medicine is a challenging field, and there are often new issues popping up, says Schlüter. She expects that collaboration between MassWildlife and Tufts Wildlife Clinic will experience “even more of an increase given threats associated with climate change, habitat loss, and emerging diseases, as well as potentially new things we haven't seen before.”

Research that Prompts Change

Tufts Wildlife Clinic Director Maureen Murray prepares to release a peregrine falcon back into the wild.

Tufts Wildlife Clinic Director Maureen Murray, D.V.M., DABVP, prepared to release a peregrine falcon back into the wild after it was treated at the clinic. Photo: Whitney Stiehler

In 2011, Murray published the first of what would become a series of studies on the topic of anticoagulant rodenticide (AR) exposure in birds of prey. Exposure to ARs occurs when people use these rodent poisons to kill unwanted pests. Mice and rats, or possibly other animals, eat the poison, and then the birds eat the poisoned prey. The anticoagulant poison interferes with blood clotting and can cause the affected animal to die due to extensive bleeding. The 2011 paper investigated AR exposure and toxicosis in four species of birds of prey: red-tailed hawks, barred owls, eastern screech owls, and great horned owls. Of 161 birds tested, 86% had AR residues in their liver tissue.

In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightened the rules around the sale of ARs, prompted by evidence of exposure among children, pets, and non-target wildlife (animals not meant to be harmed by the poison). The regulations partially went into effect in 2011, at which point ARs were meant to be sold primarily to pest management professionals and not to general consumers. On the basis of her research, Murray was appointed to an EPA scientific advisory panel on this topic.

The issue made headlines in Massachusetts in 2014 when a beloved red-tailed hawk named Ruby that lived with her mate near Fresh Pond in Cambridge died suddenly. A toxicology screen showed that Ruby tested positive for three different types of ARs, and a post-mortem examination conducted at the Wildlife Clinic found signs that she had died due to ingesting a toxic amount of these ARs. The Ruby Memorial Research Fund was established in 2014 with the support of many wildlife enthusiasts to help fund Murray’s continued research on the impact of rodenticides in birds of prey.

In 2017, Murray published another study that found 97% of red-tailed hawks tested at the clinic tested positive for AR exposure, despite the EPA regulation changes. In 2020, that figure rose to 100%. And in 2023, Murray published the first paper to find exposure to the neurotoxic rodenticide, bromethalin, in birds of prey, with co-author Elena Cox, D.V.M., the Shalin Liu Fellow in Wildlife Medicine and Education.

“These rodenticides clearly have the ability to permeate the food chain and ecosystems,” says Murray. “The findings on ARs show the ongoing, widespread exposure of birds of prey in the northeastern United States, underscoring the need for reevaluation of mitigation measures intended to decrease this risk and for continued monitoring of wildlife species to determine the effectiveness of such measures.”

Murray also contributed to recent research by the Runstadler Lab, which focuses on infectious disease research under the leadership of Jonathan Runstadler, D.V.M., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health. When the clinic admits new birds, they are tested for avian influenza and are kept isolated until a negative result is obtained to make sure other animals are not exposed to the virus. The samples are screened by the Runstadler Lab in Tufts New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory in Grafton. The data obtained from birds admitted to the clinic contributed to the understanding of an avian influenza mortality event involving hundreds of seals in New England in 2022.

A long-term study, which started in the late 1980s and continues today, by Pokras and students on lead poisoning in loons resulted in several states regulating lead fishing tackle. Loons may pick up lead fishing weights when they ingest pebbles from lake bottoms, but they also eat fish that have attached fishing gear. His work demonstrated that lead was the most frequent cause of mortality in adult loons in New England’s freshwater lakes and ponds.

Volunteers, Interns, and Other Helping Hands

Under Murray’s leadership, Tufts Wildlife Clinic operates with a small staff that includes Cristin Kelley, D.V.M., V12, assistant clinical professor; Whitney Stiehler, program administrator; three part-time certified veterinary technicians; two part-time program assistants; and two veterinary interns.

From 2020 to 2022, a generous grant from the Bernice Barbour Foundation supported the clinic’s two interns who are vital to the day-to-day operations. These veterinary professionals receive extensive training with a variety of species and interact with the animals on a consistent basis, tracking day-to-day patient progress and working closely with the wildlife veterinarians to provide medical and surgical care. They also work closely with fourth-year D.V.M. students during the mandatory wildlife rotation.

Elena Cox, the Shalin Liu Fellow in Wildlife Medicine and Education

Elena Cox, D.V.M., the Shalin Liu Fellow in Wildlife Medicine and Education. Photo: Riley Aronson

Cox was one of those interns from 2019 to 2020, before her fellowship with the clinic began. She says her internship helped to refine her professional goals and showed her the “direct influence that a wildlife veterinarian can have on the conservation of wild populations.” 

“My internship at Tufts Wildlife Clinic was characterized by excellent mentors, who led by example and created a learning experience that was fundamental to my ability to become a confident clinician and educator,” Cox says. “The specialized, expert knowledge of the practitioners at the clinic is sought out by federal and state conservation biologists, regulatory agencies, legislative bodies and consulting veterinarians. Having exposure to these collaborative efforts to improve the health of wild animals at such an early stage in my career reinforced my passion for this field.”

The clinic has long relied on volunteer support, and Tseng credits Stiehler for having grown the volunteer program into a robust opportunity for community members to participate in the clinic’s many responsibilities, such as feeding animals and cleaning enclosures. Susan Moses, who spearheaded the establishment of the Ruby Memorial Fund, is a volunteer who calls the experience “extremely gratifying.”

Moses, who is semi-retired after spending her career in the public health and environmental sectors, is a longtime bird watcher. One day, Moses sent an email to the clinic to inquire about a hawk that lived in her neighborhood. It had a band with an identification number that Moses was able to see, and she asked the clinic if they had any information about the hawk. It turned out that the bird had been banded by Pokras himself after being treated at the clinic for an injury. He asked if Moses would like to come tour the clinic, and she’s been coming back in various capacities ever since.

“The patients are sick or hurt, and they're wild animals so they don't like being around people. But it feels good to think that we're trying to help them be more comfortable by just cleaning their enclosures, putting in fresh towels, food and water, and giving them a safe temporary home,” says Moses. “It's the least we can do to help these animals that, in many cases, are hurt because of things humans have done.”

According to Murray, “The clinic’s work on behalf of wildlife over the past 40 years would not have been possible without donors, volunteers, collaborators, and all the caring people who have taken time out of their day to transport an animal in need of help to us. We’re looking forward to continuing this work in the years ahead.”

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