Profiles in Leadership is a Better Care Weekly feature that provides insight into the bright minds of leaders in the global veterinary healthcare community.
Sharon L. Deem is a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist, and the director of the Institute for Conservation Medicine at the Saint Louis Zoo. Prior to joining the Saint Louis Zoo, she worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Smithsonian National Zoo. For these organizations, she served as a clinical and field veterinarian with 2 years based in Gabon, Central Africa. She then joined the staff of the Saint Louis Zoo in 2007. Her first 3 years with the Zoo were based in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador working as a veterinary epidemiologist. For the past 7 years, she has been the Director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine. During her veterinary career, she has been fortunate to work as a private practitioner, clinician at major zoos, wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist. Her work studying disease patterns in wild animal populations has focused on the spread of disease between domestic animals and wildlife and the impact of environmental change and human contact on the conservation of wildlife species.
Dr. Deem’s research has taken her to 30 countries in some of the wildest and remote regions of the world. A few of her research projects include a health-monitoring program for gorillas in central Africa, health assessments of sea turtles in Africa and the Americas, health and ecological studies of maned wolves in Bolivia, health care of working elephants in Myanmar, and avian and tortoise studies in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
Her equally extensive experience with free-living animals and animals under human care provides a special lens on understanding the impacts human activity has on the health of other species.
She is the author of over 125 referred articles, 25 book chapters, and numerous non-referred papers. Her first book, “Introduction to One Health: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Planetary Health” will be available in January 2019 from Wiley Press. Dr. Deem has a special fondness for elephants, sea turtles, and jaguars!
NAVC: Explain what One Health is, please. What calls to action are necessary for your work in this area to succeed?
In its simplest form, One Health is the collaborative effort of multiple disciplines — working locally, nationally, and globally — to attain optimal health for people, animals, and the environment.
During the past 50 years or so there have been a number of initiatives including One Medicine, Conservation Medicine, Ecosystem Health, EcoHealth, Planetary Health and One Health which all have a similar goal of advancing health across species. Each may approach this goal with slightly different emphasis. For me, the bottom line is that we appreciate how the health of humans, animals, and environments influence one another. And that to come up with solutions with the conservation and health challenges of today, we must learn to work collaboratively and respectively across disciplines. And, most importantly we must appreciate the “six degrees of One Health” in which the health of all life is connected.
NAVC: We’ve decided we want to be you when we grow up. Were there signs when you were growing up that your life’s work needed to follow this path that is now your reality? If we interviewed your parents, what would they tell about this?
There definitely were signs from the very beginning. From an early age, I was a lover of all things stuffed animal (we now call them plush animals!) with my bed often overflowing with them. My snoopy dog probably had more “surgical procedures” than any other stuffed animal in the history of the world. I knew I wanted to help animals and I also had a fascination with medicine. Between playing doctor with my stuffed animals and the hours and hours I spent in front of the TV watching Tarzan and Jane (Tarzan’s Jane and Jane Goodall), I think there were enough clues. And, when not inside watching TV or hanging out with my “animals,” I was outside either in the local Rock Creek Park making nature trails and finding all kinds of wildlife near my home during the school year or on my dad’s Arabian horse/Texas Longhorn Ranch in Washington State where I spent many of my summers.
NAVC: We’re delighted you are scheduled to present three sessions at VMX 2019: “Turtle Conservation as the Poster Child of One Health”; “Dromedary Camels – The New Cow of Kenya”; and the roundtable discussion of “Veterinary Medicine and the Growing One Health Movement.” We got a glimpse of your speaking style by watching your TEDxTalk. How did you get so comfortable as a speaker? What’s your approach to sharing complex information with audiences?
Thank you for saying that. I am not sure how comfortable I am speaking to a room full of people! However, over the years I have become more relaxed. It is now a major part of my work and I believe strongly in the power of words. We as veterinarians must share our stories and be part of the global conversation, and not just the conversation on issues of animal health and welfare but also in biodiversity conservation and public health discussions. I try hard to forget about the “me” in a lecture and think more of the message or messages that I want the audience to take away from a talk. Years later people have told me they heard me give a presentation and every day they still think of some fact they learned during it. That makes me want to keep sharing my stories.
NAVC: Part of our awe and wonder about your work is driven by a look at your international field vet experience, which includes Galapagos – Galapagos tortoise ecology and health program; Bolivia – parrots, pumas, coatis; Kenya – camel, wildlife, human health interface study; Peru – Humboldt penguins; Madagascar – lemur conservation and health; Chile – instructor for conservation medicine; Gabon – sea turtles and elephants. All those different countries, all those different animals – it must “take a village” to coordinate all of that so you can be effective and efficient on site. What part does technology play? Tell us about how you and your team prepare for fieldwork.
Yes, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some of the most endangered species on the planet and in some of the most remote regions. Planning is key since it may take me two days of international travel and then days of boating, biking, riding a horse or hiking to get to my field site. (I have traveled to the field by all these means!) So, when it comes time to let’s say get the dart gun ready to immobilize the forest elephant in front of you, you better hope you packed all your supplies! In fact, just last month I was in the field with my team on a volcano in the middle of the Pacific. To get there I first took international flights, then a boat to a volcanic island and then I climbed for 8 hours before I could even see my first Galapagos tortoise “patient.” Thank goodness the team had prepared for months prior to this trip and we had all our supplies!
As for technology, I have a love-hate relationship with it. As we all know, technology during the recent decades has advanced at a scale that is sometimes a bit scary to think about. For wildlife health and conservation we are increasingly embracing these advances and utilizing to our advantage with handheld genomic sequencing machines to drones that may help us track study animals all helping out. However, one thing I would caution is that we don’t consider technology a panacea to the current global challenges. We must remember that at the core of our work as veterinarians are biological beings—the animals. Technology sometimes takes us a step away from the very creatures we want to help. Keeping that link to the animals we care for is a necessity we cannot lose just because of technology.
NAVC: Congratulations on your success being awarded significant fellowships and grants. At last count, we believe 49 have been awarded to you and your team for a total of $1,747,153. It must be challenging to have a parallel path of seeking a pipeline of funding while you are also doing the important work. How do you handle keeping your feet in both boats (while they are moving!)?
I see my current work as having four major components: seeking funding to do the work, doing the work, analyzing the data generated from the work and publishing it, and helping to train the next generation of One Health practitioners. There are many days and often many weeks when I am at my desk writing proposals to seek funds. What many people tend to forget is once you have the funds you then have to do the work! That takes a great deal of time. Then there is no reason to get funds and do projects if you aren’t going to analyze your data and share it with others through scientific and layperson channels.
NAVC: As a conservation medicine practitioner who has worked for the finest zoos in the USA, tell us about the roles that zoos play as partners in conservation medicine. Where can our readers go for more information on this topic? What do you wish the general public knew more about regarding zoos?
I have written fairly extensively on this subject in books, scientific papers and non-referred outlets and a few open access papers may be found here:
Padda, H., Niedbalski, A., Tate, E., and Deem, S.L. 2018. Member Perceptions of the One Health Initiative at a Zoological Institution. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 5:22. Doi: 10.3389/fvets.2018.00022.
Good accredited zoos, which in the USA are those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), are at the frontline, working for the conservation of species. These institutions have veterinary teams that understand health and disease in species across taxa. In addition to our work to provide health care to some of the most endangered animals on the planet, zoos are increasingly partnering with human medical schools and schools of public health as we look at disease issues shared across the human-animal continuum.
Many people do not realize the amazing conservation work that is taking place at AZA institutions both ex situ (at zoos) and in situ (free-living populations), or what we like to call a fence to field approach. I have worked for zoos for most of my professional career with the majority of this time working with free-living populations. We in the zoo community must do a better job at sharing with the public the amazing conservation efforts we do and make them aware of these so they may better appreciate the conservation value of zoos.
NAVC: Your husband, Stephen Blake, is a conservation biologist studying large animal ecology and large animal movement ecology. He is a professor at the Saint Louis University Department of Biology and also leads the Stephen is the coordinator of The Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme The two of you have been working together on conservation projects since you first met in 2000 when you went to the Congo to anesthetize forest elephants for his PhD research. What are the pros and cons of sharing so much in common in your work life?
It is really great to have a partner that understands your passion and work and who also works in the same field. We are both first and foremost conservationists. I come at conservation from the health side and Steve from the movement ecology side. So we complement one another very well. The cons can be that it is hard to “leave work” since work has over the years actually been based out of our home!
NAVC: We’re fascinated by your creative work as part of the Moments Of Truth Project. You work with individuals, organizations, and communities to develop the multimedia tools, knowledge and platforms they need to share their work and stories. You specialize in website building and content development for independent artists, craftspeople, writers, visual storytellers, and community centers. Tell us more about this project and how it furthers its mission to share knowledge and build mutually supportive relationships.
I stumbled into this project when the director Caroline Kraus ran into Steve while out walking her dog in our neighborhood. Steve told her about our work for wildlife conservation and she immediately asked to sign us up for her documentary. These candid discussions on how we humans interact with animals, from companion animals to livestock to wildlife, are imperative and we in the veterinary field must contribute to these discussions. Our voices must be heard.
NAVC: If there were a movie of your life so far, what would you want the title to be? Who would play you? Would Hugh Jackman play your husband?
Love this question. My son and I just saw the latest Laura Croft Tomb Raider movie so I will go with Alicia Vikander! As for my husband who is British and has a great accent, Hugh Jackman is a good pick. However, with Steve’s humor even in the most challenging field situations, Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) might be a better fit!
NAVC: What do you do for fun that’s unrelated to your work? Do you have pets?
I am very much an outdoors person with snorkeling, boating, running, hiking and camping on the list. We have one dog, Dixie Doodle Dingo Deem, a 4-year-old rescue dog. But, in truth, I am a cat person!