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Wild Wild Life

Wild Wild LifeTo Tufts wildlife expert Dr. Mark Pokras, veterinarians are more than just animal doctors, and science is about a lot more than just research.

No. Grafton, Mass. [05.12.06] When Dr. Mark Pokras (V'84) decided to become a veterinarian, it wasn't just because he liked animals. Rather, the associate professor and director of the Wildlife Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine was looking for a collaborative way to tackle broad issues of public health and animal welfare.

"There's a tendency for medical doctors to read medical journals, veterinarians to read veterinary journals, and ecologists to read ecology journals," he told The Boston Globe. ''But the solutions have to be a team effort, otherwise we're just spinning our wheels."

Pokras brought that perspective with him to his post at Tufts' Wildlife Clinic, which opened in 1983 and treats approximately 1,500 patients per year, ranging from turtles to tarantulas.

He told the newspaper that, growing up, he was "one of those kids who brought home everything. Bugs, snakes, fireflies-anything that could fit in a jar." However, it was his experience with one found animal that spurred him into his current line of work.

Pokras told the Globe that he found a wounded hawk on the side of a New Jersey highway in 1972 and became frustrated when he could not locate a veterinarian who would treat it. The hawk died a short time later.

The next year, he and his wife Martha, now executive associate dean of the Cummings School, founded the Avian Rehabilitation Center, which quickly became one of the largest centers of its kind in the United States.

''If you're that person in the neighborhood who has a soft spot for a particular kind of animal, your phone will ring," Pokras told the Globe. "You'll get known as the cat lady or the snake person. We were the crazy wildlife people."

Eight years after the hawk incident, Pokras began studying to be a veterinarian at the Cummings School, focusing on conservation medicine, which draws from the environmental, veterinary and medical disciplines. Veterinary medicine, Pokras told the Globe, has a far wider effect than just the animal population; public health in general is at stake.

''No one species is divorced from the other," he told the newspaper. ''We all drink the same water, we all breathe the same air. By protecting one, we're protecting the many."

Pokras' work monitoring area wildlife for diseases such as West Nile Virus or avian influenza reflects this belief. And thanks in part to his research of lead poisoning in birds, Vermont, New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Canada now regulate the sale of certain lead-based fishing accessories, with rules pending in other states.

Pokras and the other faculty in Tufts Center for Conservation Medicine work on a variety health issues that affect both people and animals. For example Pokras is developing a collaboration with a TCSVM veterinary oncologist to track overlapping occurrences of animal and human cancer in certain geographic locations, including Cape Cod, the Globe reported.

According to Pokras, research is only one goal for a scientist-and it's important to look at it as a means to a greater end.

''It's not enough to just collect the data and have it sit on a library shelf for the next 50 years," he explained to the Globe. ''If you want to change the world, you have to translate science into policy."

Whether it's tending to a wounded animal or keeping an eye out for the next threat to our public health, Pokras values the variety his job affords.

'You never know what you're going to see," he told the Globe.

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