The Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center is home to programs and projects doing amazing work to advance the health of wildlife in balance with people and the environment around the world. Our partners and supporters are vital to that mission, so please know that we thank you as you browse these highlights from the past year. Thank you for an amazing 2018! We look forward to building on our work in the year ahead.

The SeaDoc Society gained international attention this summer for its work with severely emaciated southern resident killer whale Scarlett (J50). Director Joe Gaydos worked closely with NOAA and others to perform the first-ever medical intervention on a wild orca. Although J50 could not be saved, a template now exists for treating the next sick whale. Gaydos was appointed to the Washington State Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, which recently released recommendations for significant changes in Salish Sea management to save southern resident killer whales from extinction. SeaDoc also brought a submarine to the Salish Sea for a week of deep sea exploration, published a best-selling nature guide for kids called Explore the Salish Sea and added three new staff members with a focus on education and outreach. SeaDoc said a fond farewell to longtime staff member Jean Lyle, who retired.

With more oil being transported over land than ever before, the potential for a devastating inland oil spill in California continues to increase. Our Oiled Wildlife Care Network continues to bolster inland preparedness, with gear acquisition as a major component of these efforts. For example, additional equipment trailers and new, heavy-duty mobile pop-up shelters give OWCN the ability to set up operations just about anywhere a spill may occur. The OWCN also welcomed several new member organizations whose locations and expertise immediately improve inland readiness. Our Member Organizations now total 43. The OWCN team has also developed protocols and guides for handling inland species such as reptiles, amphibians and terrestrial mammals in the event of an oil spill. National and international impact increased in 2018, including a notable example of OWCN bringing expertise in planning and training efforts to Mexico as part of the country’s oil spill readiness initiative.

In Península Valdés, Argentina, Dr. Marcy Uhart of our Latin America program helped investigate a mass stranding of short-beaked common dolphins. The stranding response and health monitoring program for southern right whales, also in Península Valdés, marked a 15-year anniversary in 2018, and the team used drones to determine if gull attacks are reducing survival of their calves. The team also monitored a mange outbreak in wild vicuña and guanaco. Additional highlights: a new project to assess exposure to plastics in albatrosses and petrels in Argentina and Brazil; and the roll-out of three community-based behavior change campaigns (with local marine-focused NGO partners) to reduce marine debris and its impact on wildlife. After nearly five years of investigation, the team identified a cattle parapox virus affecting the endangered Andean deer in Chile. Lastly, Dr. Uhart received the 2018 Wildlife Disease Association Distinguished Service Award.

Among the many life-saving medical interventions performed by our Gorilla Doctors teams in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo this year, a snare was removed from a semi-habituated (therefore more difficult to approach) juvenile for the first time. The year was also marked by a single month in which our veterinarians removed snares from wild gorillas in all three countries. Our circle of friends expanded with the appointment of actor Emmy Rossum as a Goodwill Ambassador, as well as the success of the first Gorilla Doctors fundraiser on the East Coast, GDNY 2018. Most exciting of all, the latest census results for mountain gorillas living in the Virunga Massif bumped the world population count up to 1,004 gorillas, the largest population ever recorded, leading the IUCN to downlist their conservation status from critically endangered to endangered. Grauer’s gorillas, however, remain in peril, leading Gorilla Doctors to be funded by National Geographic to expand its veterinary care program for habituated individuals to include monitoring the health status of wild animals in this endangered eastern subspecies.

In 2018, the Planetary Health Center of Expertise (PHCOE), led by Professor Woutrina Smith, achieved its goal of getting all 10 University of California campuses involved in climate change and population health initiatives. The PHCOE is part of the multi-campus UC Global Health Institute, focusing on solutions that will help populations build resilience in the face of changing environments. The PHCOE leads innovative training programs including multi-campus online courses, multi-campus student ambassador programs, and a summer work experience program to match UC students with practicums and jobs partnered with the UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE), the California Department of Conservation (DOC), and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to provide hands-on experience working in conservation, natural resources, agriculture, policy, and health.

An international group of 22 veterinary and graduate students, public health professionals, ecologists and early-career health professionals traveled in Tanzania this summer as participants in the One Health Institute’s second annual Rx One Health field course. Modeled on the successful Envirovet Summer Institute that was co-led by the Wildlife Health Center from 2000-2010, Rx One Health led an intensive four-week course focused on One Health challenges related to wildlife health, planetary health, conservation, risk assessment, food safety and community engagement. From seminars in classrooms to hands-on field exercises and campfires with pastoralists and villagers, Rx One Health uses a cross-cultural, immersion-based approach for One Health training. 

“The Rx One Health course provided a great opportunity for me to gain knowledge and skills as well as meet and work with amazing people around the world in different fields.”
–Trinh Nguyen, 2018 course participant

The Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, in a joint effort with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), continued to support and foster the only Free-Ranging Wildlife Health Residency of its kind in the U.S. Dr. Andrew DiSalvo, our first Resident, just completed his first year working at CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Laboratory alongside state wildlife veterinarians and biologists. Dr. DiSalvo led or participated in projects including the live-capture and processing of California wildlife species including black-tailed deer, San Joaquin kit foxes, and Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep for wildlife management and disease surveillance purposes; an anesthetic trial in free-ranging fishers; and the testing of novel therapies (tilapia skin bandages) to treat black bears burned by California wildfires. This residency joins a family of successful training programs led by the WHC, including the fourth-year veterinary student Wildlife Externship program and graduate student research support through the Phil and Karen Drayer Wildlife Health Center Fellowship program.

In 2018, the California Raptor Center was successful in raising funds for a brand new rehabilitation building, thanks to generous support from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Class of 1967 and many individual donors. This building will give the Center the ability to rehabilitate more birds with increased biosecurity, and minimize costs by using solar power to power lights and ceiling fans for ventilation. Part of the School of Veterinary Medicine response to animals impacted by the devastating wildfires in Butte County, Center Director Dr. Michelle Hawkins spearheaded efforts to evaluate poultry for potential health issues caused by the Camp Fire. Attendance at this year’s Biodiversity Museum Day and Fall Open House reached record-breaking numbers — a clear indication that the Raptor Center is reaching and educating a growing audience about birds of prey and their environments.

This year our California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project continued to work closely with commercial fishermen to remove “ghost” fishing gear and other marine debris from the ocean. Lost, abandoned and discarded fishing gear can entangle, entrap, and kill or injure marine wildlife when encountered, as well as cause fatal injury when ingested. To date, the Project has removed more than 120 tons of lost gear, as well as almost 2,000 automobile tires, from California’s coastal waters. Our work was featured on NBC News in a segment entitled “Hunting for ghost gear: What happens when fishing nets go rogue.” The Project also took a leadership role with the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, and initiated research to determine the impact of fishing gear ingestion on marine wildlife in ocean basins worldwide.

Initiated in 2009, The One Health Institute’s PREDICT Project works with partners in 30 countries around the world to identify wildlife viruses of pandemic potential and better understand drivers of viral spillover. To date, PREDICT has detected more than 1,000 unique viruses in animals and humans. This summer, PREDICT announced the discovery of a new species of ebolavirus in free-tail bats in Sierra Leone — the first time an Ebola virus has been discovered before detection in a sick human or animal. A study published in June reported suspected exposure to filoviruses among people contacting wildlife in southwestern Uganda, suggesting more surveillance is needed to better understand the role of secondary hosts in spillover. PREDICT researchers also discovered two new viruses in bats in Myanmar related to those that cause SARS and MERS.

In 2018, ongoing collaborative efforts between the Sacramento Zoo and veterinary specialists at the Wildlife Health Center resulted in the training, research and animal care activities that make the program a world-renowned leader in zoological medicine. Highlights this year include the successful treatment of a snow leopard cub with birth defects and developmental abnormalities, and a black-and-white ruffed lemur with a ruptured patellar ligament. Dr. Jenessa Gjeltema expanded a research program evaluating the health effects of environmental plastic. Dr. Ray Wack received the 2018 UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Faculty Clinical Excellence Award, and also shepherded the Sacramento Zoo Conservation Program to provide more than $200,000 in support of wildlife conservation locally and globally.

The Marine Ecosystem Health Lab provides critical diagnostic testing for the national marine mammal stranding networks, zoos and aquaria, and assists in investigations into unusual mortality events (UMEs) affecting marine mammals in the U.S. In 2018, the lab tested approximately 1,000 samples from more than 500 marine mammals. Notable results of these analyses included the detection of a strain of herpesvirus in two minke whales with meningitis, and the isolation and sequencing of a Phocine distemper virus strain in harbor seal and grey seals dying during the current UME happening along the U.S. Atlantic coast. The lab also supported the detection of Toxoplasma gondii in three endangered Hawaiian monk seals found dead on a beach on Oahu.


In collaboration with other universities, non-profits and agencies, the Wildlife Health Center helped collar new lions — 100 to date — to study interactions between mountain lions and their prey; documented mortalities and projected population trends; and worked to design more effective highway crossing structures to limit roadkill. Dr. Winston Vickers and colleagues studied and defined levels of habitat fragmentation, corridors, barriers to movement and their genetic effects on mountain lion populations. In October, an eight-episode web documentary called “California Mountain Lions” was released to educate the public about the species, its importance to the ecosystem and what humans can do to prevent population decline.

Browse a list of 2018 publications produced by Wildlife Health Center faculty and our affiliates. It was an incredible year featuring some amazing and diverse work!