Environmental Health: A Conversation with Sharon Deem, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACZM, Director for the Saint L

The Saint Louis Zoo's WildCare Institute is one of the most well-regarded conservation programs at any zoo in the world. It features 13 centers around the globe that focus on biodiversity hotspots connected to conservation programs led by a staff member on the zoo. While not one of the centers, the zoo's Institute for Conservation Medicine works closely with the WildCare Institute. The Institute for Conservation Medicine is focused on solving issues related to environmental health around the world and is run by Dr. Sharon Deem. Here is her story.

@ Sharon Deem

For many years, Deem worked as a clinical and field veterinarian. “I started out with a love of medicine and animals so I went up the veterinary route,” she recalled. “Conservation was always the top thing on my mind so it was a great fit to get into zoo medicine. I had a unique perspective as I grew up living in Washington DC most of the year but spending my summers at my stepmother’s ranch in Washington State. [That let me see] some of the big issues of conservation in politics and the wild. In vet school, I did an elective where I spent two months at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. During that time, I became so interested in what zoos do, especially their work for animal health and conservation. I ended up taking a slight detour from the zoo world with a couple of years in private practice then getting my PhD. Program at the University of Florida, working on livestock diseases in Africa.”

@ Sharon Deem

However, Deem wanted to get back into zoos and ended up doing a zoo and wildlife residency at the University of Florida. The first two years of the residency had a focus on veterinary care of animals both at the veterinary school and at a number of zoos in the state. “The third year of the residency was at White Oak Conservation Center,” she mentioned. After completing the residency, Deem went to the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. “For the first year and a half, I was a clinician working at the four WCS zoos and the aquarium,” she said. “I went around New York City doing vet stuff. However, my real love is helping animals in the wild so I was able to move into their field vet program. For many years, I was basically a vet involved in many of WC’s programs throughout the world and I was able to work on population health issues. It was very nice.”

@ Sharon Deem

Next, Deem would going to Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “I took a clinical position for three years, but I knew I wanted to work with free-living wildlife,” she stated. “After the stint as a clinical veterinary officer, I moved to Gabon and worked for the Smithsonian on sea turtle and elephant health and conservation work.”

@ Sharon Deem

Soon, Deem would find the job that perfectly matched her love for zoos and population health. “The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute [at the Saint Louis Zoo] had recently started and I knew Dr. Eric Miller (Senior Vice President) very well,” she recalled. “I heard they were looking for a veterinary epidemiologist for their Galapagos program and I ended up going to the Galapagos in that position for three years. That was a really good opportunity to do wildlife health work. At the end of the three years, Jeffrey Bonner, PhD., Dana Brown President and CEO of the Saint Louis Zoo, and Dr. Miller said they wanted to start a program in conservation medicine at the Zoo.” Deem moved from Galapagos to the St. Louis to be the first director of the newly established Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine in 2010.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Institute for Conservation Medicine integrates conservation, zoo expertise, population health and medicine. “The real crux of our program is that we come at conservation challenges through a medical lens,” Deem elaborated. “I see the world through health issues and see most conservation issues as health issues, whether reproductive fitness, climate change or disease issues in small populations. Our projects very much look at health issues threatening the species we work to protect. We work for healthy animals and healthy people. We also focus on educating people to understand how human health is dependent on animal and environmental health.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“That’s the hook we use to get people to understand why biodiversity conservation is important,” Deem explained. “You don’t have to love bats but losing them can impact your health so you need to care about bats. We can say the same for vultures, bees and frogs. All these animals are in danger because of humans. We use that as a vehicle to get people out in nature. We also can help to combat human health issues like obesity and diabetes by getting people out into nature. this realization of the need for human-nature connections is increasingly appreciated in our field.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Institute for Conservation Medicine is currently doing research on the positive impacts nature may have on human health. Having published a paper in 2015 on the health benefits of interacting with stingrays at their touch tank exhibit, Sharon is now starting phase two of these studies. “We’re setting up a project in River’s Edge [at the Saint Louis Zoo] looking at visitor blood pressure and psychological assessments pre- and post- visit,” Deem explained. “We hope these results will concur with our original study showing the benefits of a zoo visit. At the Saint Louis Zoo, we are located in this wonderful park, Forest Park, and surrounded by a number of human medical centers. I know a lot of people visiting loved ones in the hospital or who are sick themselves that go to the zoo just to de-stress and escape from the hardship of these health issues. our studies are helping to get the data that supports what most of us in the zoo world already know- natural heals!”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Institute for Conservation Medicine has also collaborated extensively with the WildCare Institute’s Center for Conservation in Madagascar. “The center is part of the Madagascar Flora and Fauna group and the Zoo has been really instrumental in working there,” she explained. “I’ve been to Madagascar there three times working on the biomedical evaluation of lemur species, including the health of lemurs and their parasite loads. We’ve detected new viruses and are hoping that kind of information can be used to help slow down the bushmeat trade. If we can show how lemurs have viruses that may harm human health, maybe we can help slow their use as bushmeat.] I have worked at the Betampona Nature Reserve, which the Zoo helps protect and also the local zoo that houses confiscated lemurs and tortoises to help educate locals to care about animals. We have provided veterinary care and helped with the husbandry to help ensure the animals may serve as ambassadors for Madagascar’s people to be enthused about their animals.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

While Deem is based at the Saint Louis Zoo, her work is largely directed at the field studies. “At the Zoo, all my work is research related,” she elaborated. “The only times I did hands-on work with the animals [at the Zoo] was when we did a comparative study on our lemurs here for the Madagascar project. I do a lot of writing and teaching. I am affiliated with many of the universities in the area and we have many interns and postdocs. I spend a lot of time trying to raise money with writing papers and proposals.” One to three times a year, Deem goes out to one of the field sites to do ecological studies. “Most of our programs have a health aspect,” she added.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Institute also runs local projects. “One of the things I really love is our Saint Louis Box Turtle Program where we are in the field studying their health studies looking at disease issues in turtles and their home ranges,” Deem remarked. “That’s the one I’m most proud of in terms of hooking people to think about conservation. This ‘silly little turtle’ gets people to think about conservation, which is pretty special. It’s gotten people to think about environmental health and realize conservation is right her in our cities and neighborhoods.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The St. Louis Box Turtle Program has a sister project in the Galapagos Islands. “The Galapagos project is just as fantastic as we get the local kids out in nature and let them meet giant tortoises,” Deem said. “We’re doing science and management but also exciting and engaging the next generation of [conservationists.] We have increasingly bridged the gap between the kids in Saint Louis and Galapagos to share their love of turtles. We even get them to speak each other’s language.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Compared to the WCS and Smithsonian, Deem feels the WildCare Institute takes a slightly different approach to conservation. “In many ways, the benefit [of our model] is the passion of the people leading the centers have and the ability to use the WildCare Institute stories, along with the animals at the Zoo, to connect local visitors to the larger conservation footprint we have,” she articulated. “The program I’m directing is one of the first at zoos [of its kind] and [can serve as] a template for other zoos. I’ve had lots of vet friends talking about setting up [similar programs] at their zoos.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

A unique aspect of the WildCare Institute is each program is led by a curator that works on the ground. “That brings a connection between the Zoo and the field,” Deem elaborated. “That link is a strong positive of our model. We have keepers who go to our field sites and work. The frontline people at the Zoo may go to Kenya, Peru, Armenia or the Galapagos to do field work and bring that excitement back to the Zoo.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

A major focus of the Institute for Conservation Medicine has been academic partnerships. “We’ve made a lot of collaborative efforts with universities in the region, which has suddenly escalated to a powerful partnership across the units,” Deem stated. “We’ve been able to do more with students and get them involved. [For instance,] we’re doing courses at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Missouri-Columbia on One Health. It focuses on getting the One Health initiative and the health connections between environment, animals and people into the future medical doctors, veterinarians and ecologists, while presenting from a conservation perspective. That’ll be very positive.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Deem’s career has paralleled a growing awareness of environmental health issues in society. “I feel very fortunate for what I’ve done since veterinary school,” Deam concluded. “Probably the best thing has been seeing the change in people’s understanding as the conservation challenges come on the daily news. People are beginning to think about biodiversity loss and climate change. I feel fortunate my career has been during the time where people have been like ‘Oh my gosh. We need to do something.’ I feel fortunate and proud to be one of the players in this equation. People are starting to understand the steps that have to be taken. And zoos are helping to lead the way with these actions."

@ Sharon Deem

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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