St. Louis Zoo: One Health & Turtle Ambassadors

    By Suzanne Vanderhoef

    During these trying times when the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, the intersection between human and animal health has suddenly been highlighted and forced into focus. But it’s actually something the St. Louis Zoo and its Institute for Conservation Medicine have been focusing on for nearly a decade thru their One Health program.

    Conservation medicine examines the growing disease challenges that threaten the survival of wild animal species and that negatively impact human public health. Under that umbrella, the One Health program looks at the interrelationship of diseases in animals and humans, in the context of environmental change.

    A major part of studying that interconnection focuses on education. A good example is some of that work being done right here in Missouri is the St. Louis Box Turtle Project. The box turtle project uses radio tracking devices attached to the turtles’ shells to track them in order to understand their migration patterns, ecology and health. The goal is to use the box turtles as “ambassadors” to help people better appreciate wildlife and to promote conservation.

    “They help engineer and do things for our ecosystem,” explains Dr. Sharon Deem, Director of the St. Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine. “So we have that kind of link and then increasingly over the years, we have taken thousands of people out to meet a crazy little box turtle –kids and adults– out to track box turtles and really get them connected to nature.”

    As with all their research, this local box turtle project focuses on both the conservation of wildlife species and human public health. But these studies extend far beyond Missouri. The Zoo also works with like-minded groups across the globe.

    “We do work with Galapagos tortoises here in the St. Louis Zoo and then we also do the box turtle work here, so we’re sort of building a little center of expertise around infectious diseases and conservation concerns and Chelonians, which are turtles and tortoises,” says Dr. Maris Brenn-White, St. Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine Research Fellow. “And so, a sort of natural partnership that we made was with the Turtle Survival Alliance, which is an international group that does turtle and tortoise conservation in Madagascar, the radiated tortoises are poached from the wild primarily for the pet trade.”

    Because of the way things like the pet trade mix and match species that would never be together and then move them across the globe, that can lead to the emergence of new pathogens that have been in the news recently, COVID-19 being the latest.

    “When we think about humans spreading diseases around the world, we think of somebody taking COVID-19 from Italy to the US, when we pick up a radiated tortoise in southern Madagascar and take it to Malaysia and then bring it back,” says Dr. Brenn-White. “We need to think about what sorts of diseases [these animals] were exposed to they never should have been exposed to and what sort of mixing bowl of pathogens and diseases it might represent. And then we have to make sure that that tortoise, if we want to release it back into the wild safely, is not carrying something that could be a risk to the wild population.”

    As Dr. Deem describes it, “It is very important for folks to understand that One Health is an idea, it’s an approach, it’s an understanding how human, animal and environmental health is completely interconnected. And once we start appreciating that, we can think of better ways to interact with the animals that are out there and with our environment.”