Educational and Multidisciplinary Approach to the Conservation and Welfare of Captive Wildlife at the Belize Zoo


Educational and Multidisciplinary Approach to the Conservation and Welfare of Captive Wildlife at the Belize Zoo


Santiago Peralta, DVM, Dipl. AVDC, Assistant Professor, Dentistry and Oral Surgery, Department of Clinical Sciences


George V. Kollias, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACZM, Emeritus Jay Hyman Professor, Zoological and Wildlife Medicine, Department of Clinical Sciences


The rationale and objectives of this project are: 1) to broaden the educational experience of Cornell students and specialists in training by immersing them in providing veterinary care for animals in The Belize Zoo (TBZ); 2) to provide high-quality specialized medical services to the zoo animals using a multidisciplinary approach; and 3) to collect medical and scientific information relevant to the conservation and welfare of endangered and non-endangered species that are indigenous to Central America.

The Belize Zoo is a nonprofit organization founded in 1983. Its mission includes the preservation of native fauna and the education of Belizeans and international visitors. The zoo’s collection consists of over 150 animals, including several nearly extinct, endangered, and threatened species. The facilities available include a basically equipped veterinary clinic and a zoo lodge with the capacity to accommodate large groups of students, researchers and visitors. The Tropical Education Center (TEC) is affiliated with TBZ; its programs complement the zoo and formally recognize the crucial role that local and international education plays in conserving native fauna and the important ecosystems in which they live.

There is an active, ongoing collaborative relationship, initiated in 2011 by Dr. Kollias, between the College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University and TBZ. The working environment at TBZ has been shown to be logistically sound and safe; to date 53 veterinary students, and several faculty and staff from Cornell have participated. Currently, TBZ is the base for course VTMED 6737 (Field Techniques of International Wildlife Management) offered to veterinary students in first through fourth year. The educational opportunities include exposure of students, residents and faculty to specialized areas of interest, broadening veterinary education and providing hands-on experiences for all participants. The program introduces veterinary students and residents to wildlife and zoological medicine in a real-life setting while providing high-quality medical and surgical care for the animals housed in and received by TBZ. Additionally, the experience serves to educate all involved in the logistics and challenges surrounding major conservation efforts.

The multidisciplinary clinical approach proposed in this project involves the Cornell University Sections of Zoological Medicine, Dentistry and Oral Surgery, and Anesthesiology, as well as veterinary students. The Zoological Medicine clinicians will be in charge of establishing the medical and surgical needs as well as the priorities of individual animals. The Zoological Medicine and the Anesthesiology team will be in charge of the safe and humane chemical restraint, anesthesia, and analgesia of the animals scheduled for procedures. The Dentistry and Oral Surgery clinicians will provide dental, oral and maxillofacial services. This model was successfully tested in January of 2015 (Appendix 1); the duration was 6 days and the work performed included advanced endodontic and periodontal procedures in 6 jaguars, sinonasal surgery in 1 deer, and orodental health screening of multiple howler and spider monkeys. This experience had an immediate positive impact on the welfare of the animals treated, and was educational for all those involved including Cornell and zoo personnel.

Our experiences at TBZ (and at Australian and North American zoos) indicate that the prevalence of serious dental diseases is high in this population of mammals. Treating dental disease immediately improves an individual’s welfare. However and perhaps more importantly, addressing the dental disease of endangered animals prolongs the period over which an individual can contribute to the gene pool, thereby encouraging genetic diversity. Moreover, disease screening and remediation of dental problems, are essential prerequisites for releasing animals into the wild or transferring them to other zoos in the Americas. This project would also allow systematic collection of data that will underpin how dental disease of critically endangered species is handled in the future, and will allow the training of curators and keepers at the zoo, further enhancing animal welfare.

The methodology proposed consists of 2 field trips to TBZ per academic year, for 2 consecutive years. The team traveling will consist of a total of 8 Cornell veterinary students; 3 faculty members and 3 resident clinicians from the Sections of Zoological Medicine, Dentistry and Oral Surgery, and Anesthesiology; and 1 technical support staff member. The current course budget is $3,000 per academic year and only covers a minor fraction of the real costs. The one-time multidisciplinary effort described above was possible using limited teaching and research funds provided by the faculty members involved, and by a one-time sponsorship for the shipment of loaner equipment provided by a manufacturer. This funding mechanism for future trips is unsustainable. This grant will be used to cover the cost of the medical supplies; to purchase and/or transport required medical equipment; and to cover the travel expenses generated by faculty, residents and staff. Local transportation, housing x 1 week, meals and the cost of a local cultural field trip for Cornell faculty and staff involved in each trip will be paid for by TBZ (worth approximately $3,822 per trip or $7,644 per year, according to figures provided by TBZ).

Overall, this project will be of high educational and experiential value for the Cornell and TBZ individuals involved, will provide welfare and promote the conservation efforts of Belizean fauna, and will facilitate the collection of relevant scientific information.