Ready for a challenge?

April 23, 2018

By Eli Baskir, Behavior Research Associate

For most of us, the rewards for what we accomplish during the week aren’t gold medals—the 2018 Winter Olympic games are over. Daily tasks might seem routine because you’ve mastered them, but consider how you felt when you were first introduced to a new assignment at work or school. Were you excited? Did you focus your attention? Did you rise to the occasion? Even Olympians have to start somewhere, and the challenges they face bring out their incredible skills. But, after they master the easy stuff, what’s next?

Like humans, animals have physical abilities and problem-solving skills they use to escape danger and find food. Evidence suggests that encountering challenging situations and improving competence is exciting for many species, including great apes. The activity required to complete such a challenge can be a great workout (just ask an Olympian). We also know that some animals prefer to work for resources that are otherwise offered freely; for them, just like most humans, completing a difficult task can be rewarding on its own.

If you do the same thing over and over again, however, it’s just not difficult anymore. This is the same for animals, and giving them new objects doesn’t necessarily guarantee their interest. Rather than trying to continually introduce novel things all the time, what if an animal is given a task that can capture their excitement and attention each time they use it? Such a puzzle would have to be challenging, and it would have to stay challenging even as it is mastered.

In zoos, introducing challenges appropriate to animals’ skills is our responsibility. Discussions about complexity and novelty led to the development at the Saint Louis Zoo of a concept we call Progressively Challenging Enrichment (PCE). PCE recognizes that animals need challenge but can’t be given the most difficult puzzles first—imagine trying to learn calculus before addition! Instead, challenges must be introduced at an appropriate level based on an animal’s skills, and then gradually updated to increase engagement.

Before Centene Grizzly Ridge was built, a sloth bear named Daisy lived in one of the former Bear Dens. Sloth bears have a unique way of eating—­they use their mouths to vacuum insects out of old logs! Our keepers wanted to encourage this behavior, so they designed PVC tubes of different lengths. One end of each tube was open, and the other was closed with food items like berries “glued” to the inside with honey. Keepers discovered that as Daisy was presented with the more challenging, longer tubes, she spent more time vacuuming. This enrichment had benefits that extended past her mealtime, as Daisy would be more active those afternoons, spending time interacting and investigating her habitat.

The next time you visit the Zoo, think about the design of certain enrichment devices that you may see in the animals’ habitats and how they can be made more challenging. You might notice that some of the monkeys at the Primate House have feeders that resemble the game KerPlunk. The object of this enrichment is for the monkeys to get to the grapes inside the device by removing the sticks so that the grapes tumble out as a reward. In a future visit, you may see that the monkeys have to pull more and more sticks out to get the grapes to fall!

The Ties That Bind: One Health

April 12, 2018

By Sharon Deem, DVM, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Conservation Medicine

I spend a lot of time thinking about health. As a wildlife veterinarian, this includes the health of my animal patients, but also the health of the environments that support my patients and the health of humans that are dependent on both animals and environments. I have worked with forest elephants in Africa, children in Asian villages, and global efforts to help feed the world's 7.6 billion human inhabitants. But, what might African forest elephants, children on the other side of the world, and food production have in common and what do they have to do with your health?

Forest elephants are ecosystem engineers, or forest gardeners, that help maintain the Central African rainforest and the lungs (e.g., trees) of planet Earth.

Just like you, all children, no matter in Missouri or Myanmar, need fresh water, fresh air and enough calories to be healthy and survive.

At first glance it may be harder to appreciate the link between food production and your health. One example is evident as we humans continue to modify landscapes and destroy wetlands—places that for millennia have been stopover sites along migrating wild bird flyways—to replace them with commercial poultry farms. This leads to increased contact between wild and domestic birds and the mixing of influenza strains as the migrating birds continue to use their flyways only to find commercial poultry along the route. It is at these human-modified landscapes where influenza strains may be shared between wild and domestic birds. These influenza viruses may then spillover from chickens, and other poultry, to the growing human population.

These three examples demonstrate the connections that link environmental, animal and human health. Often referred to as One Health, connections such as these remind us that the health of each, for better or for worse, is dependent on the other. Just as we understand that our health depends on clean air to breathe, water to drink, and safe foods to eat, we increasingly understand what it takes to provide these resources. We need biodiversity. We need animals like elephants and tortoises and hornbills to disperse seeds and care for forests, and bivalves (e.g., mussels and clams) to help maintain our freshwater rivers, and plants that are the only true link for harnessing the sun's energy necessary for the production of all food. We as a species need plants and animals, period.

So what is the current status of this shared One Health? Not good! Challenges that threaten the health of animals, plants and people escalate daily as our human footprint extends across the planet. From climate change and habitat degradation to species extinctions and increased pollutants, we humans are threatening wildlife conservation, environmental stability and public health. We can no longer deny these threats. We can no longer disregard the connection between our own human-centric health and that of the environments that support us and of the other animals that share the planet with us.

There is hope! Scientists and non-scientists alike have come to increasingly appreciate the health links across the One Health Triad (humans, animals, plants). In recent years, this has led to a growing movement that brings disciplines together for a holistic approach to health care. This One Health approach is not just about naming the threats, but more importantly it is about finding the solutions to the greatest global health challenges of the 21st century. Teams of One Health practitioners, from disciplines as diverse as veterinary medicine and anthropology, human medicine and politics, to engineering and ecology are joining forces to find solutions to the health challenges of today.

In Saint Louis we are fortunate to have institutions and individuals working together to develop strategies that will help to ensure public health, wildlife conservation and environmental stability—the three goals of One Health. As we combine research and education efforts of the amazing universities and medical colleges, the Missouri Botanical Garden and Saint Louis Zoo, nonprofits and for-profits, many in St. Louis are working to ensure healthy people, healthy animals and healthy plants; in other words, working for Planetary Health. Whether we wish to find solutions to cancers and contaminants, food security and safety, or we wish to continue to share the planet with other amazing and wonderful species, we are collaborating to tackle the multifaceted health and conservation challenges of today. St. Louis, Missouri, is a hub for One Health, and the work we do will help ensure the health of you and your family whether you live in St. Louis City, St. Louis County, or Saint-Louis, Senegal, Africa.

Learn about the links between wildlife conservation and human health from Saint Louis Zoo staff, and local university students at the annual One Health Fair on Saturday, April 14.

Click the photos below to enlarge. 

One Health Week 2018

April 09, 2018

The Zoo's Institute for Conservation Medicine  strives to solve global health challenges, which include climate change, pollinator decline, food safety, water availability, biodiversity loss and other planetary health issues. Students in veterinary medicine, human medicine, public health, and various master’s and PhD programs can take part in the Institute for Conservation Medicine’s (ICM) ongoing research programs, including projects in Kenya, the Galapagos and here in Missouri. These programs provide students the opportunity to get research, laboratory and field work exposure within #OneHealth. 

Learn about the links between wildlife conservation and human health from Saint Louis Zoo staff, and local university students at the annual One Health Fair 

MU MPH student studying abroad. MU MPH student studying abroad.

University of Missouri - Master of Public Health Program

At least 75% of all existing and emerging infectious diseases in people are known to be zoonotic. That is, they are spread though animal-human contact. Our health is impacted by the food we eat, the animals we encounter and the environments we share. One Health is an approach to public health that recognizes the important links between human health, animal health, and ecological health. The University of Missouri Master of Public Health program is becoming a leader in training students in One Health through its Veterinary Public Health degree offering. The Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine has been an important partner of the MPH program by providing students the opportunity to explore the relationships between animal habitats and human health. The MU MPH program will also launch a completely online version of its VPH emphasis area degree beginning in the Fall of 2018. More information is available here.

The Center for One Health at Fontbonne University

One Health research engages students, teaches critical thinking and investigates questions important to the local community. At Fontbonne University’s Center for One Health, developed in conjunction with the Saint Louis Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Medicine, undergraduate students engage in research spanning disciplines, exploring issues related to climate change, developmental stress, racism and health, and so much more. The Center for One Health offers a one health minor for undergraduate students, as well as a One Health Practitioner Certification open to anyone with an undergraduate degree interested in mastering skills and applying One Health concepts to his or her own area of expertise.  For more information visit

The Wildlife Epidemiology Lab within the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois

The Wildlife Epidemiology Lab is a collaborative research and diagnostic lab that focuses on emerging diseases in free-ranging and captive wildlife. Through our countless epidemiological projects we have developed assays that allow us to better characterize the threats to wildlife and are always constantly working to develop new diagnostic assays for current and emerging diseases in amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Our mission is to advance veterinary care for wildlife and companion animals, contribute to human health by characterizing wildlife disease transmission, and improve environmental conservation efforts that support good health and wellness of wildlife. Everything our mission stands for can be encompassed into our motto: “Saving the world, one box turtle at a time.”

While the focus of the lab began with a project to identify ranavirus in eastern box turtles, we now study wellness and diseases of many species including silvery salamanders, alligator snapping turtles, bearded dragons, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, Humboldt penguins, ornate box turtles, timber rattlesnakes, and many more. The threatened or endangered status of many of these species encourages collaboration with veterinarians, zoos, and biologists across the country and world. Our team works in states including but not limited to Ohio, Tennessee, New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, and right back home in Illinois. We also have international research underway in Ontario, Canada and Punta San Juan, Peru.

The Largest Health Project in Box Turtles Ever

Since 2007, we have been performing physical examinations, blood testing, and disease investigations of box turtles in both Tennessee and Illinois. Thanks to John Rucker and his turtle dogs we have been able to locate and sample over 3000 turtles. We have been able to characterize the health or test for diseases in half of those, making this the largest health project in box turtles ever. We have identified new diseases, monitored for infection, organ damage, heavy metal contamination, plasma proteins, and mapped this information using GIS technology. Current project goals include further characterizing the health of these populations and investigating new diseases that threaten the conservation of the box turtle. Additionally, we are exploring the role of biodiversity in the presence of these diseases and how they impact behavior, transmission, and persistence.


Snake Fungal Disease

The Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory is at the forefront of one of the largest emerging infectious diseases today - Snake Fungal Disease (SFD) caused by the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola. It is causing widespread disease and high death rates in both wild and captive snakes across the country. While the infections caused by the fungus in individuals is concerning, the role that it plays in population declines is more alarming. After identifying the fungus as the cause of disease, our lab has developed a treatment that has saved both wild snakes and those of zoo collections. As little is known about this disease, our goal with SFD is to continue investigating the method of transmission, pathogenesis of the disease, and treatments that can save not just individuals, but populations.

We are excited to team-up with students in human medicine and experienced biologists, and share our knowledge with you about the importance of good wildlife health at the One Health Fair!

Find out about more about our collaborative projects supporting wildlife health.