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Jansen van Vuuren
The Art/Science of Zoological Medicine

In my field, zoological medicine, anything is possible: glue-on shoes for a rhino with sore feet, an ultrasound for a gravid komodo dragon or a silica gel shake-and-bake treatment for a mite-infested cockroach. With 1.3 million species and counting, I learn something new each day. I look things up often, talk to colleagues and extrapolate. A tiger is cat-like, most frogs are similar, seed-eating birds differ from fruit-eating ones.

Vets who work with wild animals also spend as much, if not more, time observing their patients than they do actually examining them. I love this part of my job because it requires a combination of imagination and critical thinking.

From a distance, using binoculars, I watch a female mountain gorilla limp along. I imagine the explanations: sprain, strain, fracture, wound, snare. From her expression, she is in pain. I interpret her clinical signs by comparing them in my mind to other patients. I ask the trackers what they think. If it’s a snare, she could lose a limb or even her life. There could be a piece of wire or rope encircling her leg, buried beneath her thick black hair.

Wild mountain gorillas are so rare that they have their own veterinary team, but we intervene only when humans cause the injury or illness. If she improves without treatment over the next few days, the diagnosis is less likely to be a snare. Medicine, like art, is iterative.

Sadly, my profession is faced with a much bigger challenge than a limping gorilla: Our patients are disappearing. The current rate of species extinction is at least one-thousand times higher than ever before. We are in the sixth mass extinction, and humans are driving the change.

Solutions to biodiversity loss require the informed actions of many. Unfortunately, only one-third of Americans are science literate, meaning they are capable of making a decision based on scientific information.

Teaching biology at the Rhode Island School of Design, I work with students interested in the many ways humans interact with animals. I hope to inspire future artists and designers to increase their science literacy—and then use their work to help others. By exploring new ways to stir emotions, raise awareness and stimulate debate, we have an opportunity to change the way science is communicated. The animal kingdom depends on it.

Lucy Spelman is one of a handful of veterinarians certified in zoological medicine. Her patients have included giant pandas in China, Asian elephants in Burma, giant river otters in Guyana and mountain gorillas in Rwanda. She is also a writer and an educator with a keen interest in exploring new ways to use the arts to communicate and interpret science. In 2008, she published her first work of creative nonfiction, The Rhino with Glue-on Shoes, a book of 28 short stories. Currently, she teaches biology at RISD and is a member of the Karanambu Trust Board of Trustees in Guyana, South America.


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