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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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National Wildlife Health Center investigates animal diseases
Few here know about tucked-away center's nationally unique work
Scott Wright at the center: 'The greatest strength we bring
to the issue is perspective.'
Scott Wright at the center: 'The greatest strength we bring to the issue is perspective.'
Credit:Carolyn Fath

In a basement laboratory, Carol Meteyer places a dead tri-colored bat on an elevated table. Covered in protective gear, she resembles a surgeon calculating where to make the first cut.

Meteyer, a wildlife pathologist, is responsible for performing a necropsy - an autopsy for animals. Working with an assistant, she carefully slices paper-thin pieces from the bat's wing for testing.

The small bat, brought to the center from Indiana, shows remnants of white fungal growth on its body. Meteyer's job is to determine whether it perished from white-nose syndrome, a disease decimating bat populations across the United States.

"I really like the mystery of it," says Meteyer. "I think it's a privilege to be able to look at the animals on the table, look at all the tissues under the microscope, pull together what's happening, get the lab data and get that story. I like that creative part of it in addition to the intellectual challenge."

It's important work. As pollinators and consumers of insects, cave bats play an invaluable role in local ecosystems and agricultural industries. Meteyer and her colleagues at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison are experts at identifying the fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome. It was the first lab in the country to do it.

The center, the only one of its kind, opened in 1975, providing on-site experts and lab support to study wildlife diseases. Today, 100 people work relatively unnoticed in four buildings on the city's west side, tackling the country's most imminent wildlife troubles. The center has spearheaded responses to avian influenza, West Nile virus, chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin's deer and white-nose syndrome in bats, among many others.

But the prospect of federal budget cuts looms over the center. No one knows how much of its current annual budget of $10 million will be left intact.

The National Wildlife Health Center operates under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Society. It annually receives between 1,500 and 1,800 animal carcasses, and acts as the go-to resource for investigating and monitoring America's wildlife health.

The center was founded following a disease outbreak that killed nearly half of a large duck population in South Dakota. Its founder and first director was Milton Friend, a wildlife biologist and current emeritus scientist who was inspired by the philosophies of renowned Madison wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold.

Friend, who stepped down in 1998, says the center was initially given two years to prove its worth. At first, it focused on diagnosing causes of bird mortality and providing consultation and information about diseases.

"Research was not going to get you anywhere in two years, so the emphasis was on service," Friend says. Although research was inherent in everything the center did, one priority in those early days was to establish a reputation.

Today, in the event of a wildlife disease outbreak, the center's diagnostic and research branches spring into action.

The investigations team conducts groundwork with animal disease cases and die-offs, working with state wildlife agencies over the phone and visiting sites to bring samples back to the center if needed. The diagnostic unit conducts a detailed carcass-by-carcass analysis in efforts to pinpoint causes of death, while the research unit investigates cases further and even develops solutions to share with others via journal articles and press releases.

The center has no authority or jurisdiction over anyone. It only gets involved when government wildlife agencies and other organizations request help.

Historically, the National Wildlife Health Center has many firsts, including the discovery that lead shot can taint hunting meat and poison wild birds and other animals that ingest the pellets. A few years back, it helped other federal agencies prepare for foot-and-mouth disease in livestock - a significant threat that thankfully never arrived in America. Center scientists also helped study the first case of West Nile virus in New York City in 1999.

Most recently, the death of 3,000 to 4,000 birds in Beebe, Ark., on New Year's Eve thrust the center into the international spotlight. Some labeled the media frenzy that ensued the "Aflockalypse."

"The fact that the center was there was comforting because I knew we could get the answers," says Karen Rowe, an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission ornithologist tasked with finding answers to the bird kill. "That's why I could sleep for a few hours." Rowe collected and froze 120 birds to ship overnight to Madison.

The Beebe birds, says Rowe, most likely were scared from their roost by the loud booms of New Year's fireworks - louder than typical backyard firecrackers - and crashed into power lines, buildings and other manmade structures.

Animal die-offs happen all the time, says Scott Wright, who heads the center's disease investigations branch. In fact, it's looked into eight similar incidences involving 1,000 or more birds during the last year.

Yet putting to rest conspiracy theories wasn't easy in the Beebe case. Some people were convinced the dead birds were a sign from the heavens, while others accused the U.S. government of secretly testing biological weapons. It was even speculated that a shift in the Earth's electromagnetic field sent the birds into a blind frenzy.

"Where we ran into trouble was when people didn't believe us," says Wright, who admits he too would be distressed to find dead birds scattered across his lawn. But his job is to explain the seemingly inexplicable.

"There have been many [die-off] events since that one. It's happening all over the world," says Wright. "The greatest strength we bring to the issue is perspective."

Back in the necropsy room, Meteyer continues to assess the deceased bat. She walks over to a door and announces her conclusion: The whitish fungus found on the bat is probably not the type responsible for white-nose syndrome. She'll confirm her judgment later by looking at samples under a microscope and examining the fungus' signature with a technique that amplifies the DNA of the sample.

From her experience, Meteyer says it looks like a normal environmental decomposer - a type of natural fungus that grows after the death of an organism. She walks over to a microphone to the left of the necropsy table and details her findings, which will be transcribed later upstairs.

Most cases allow Meteyer to glean important details, but drawing clear conclusions is not always this easy.

She's proud of the National Wildlife Health Center's contributions to animal and human health. "It's important that the public values wildlife," Meteyer says. "The center has to remain relevant and communicate wildlife issues and the work we're doing."

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