Thursday, 12 Jun 2003

PALISADES, N.Y.

Yesterday afternoon, the booking producer from a news show lined me up for an interview at my office this morning, to discuss diseases that wildlife give to humans and vice versa. I sent her some articles I’ve written to give her an idea of the work I’ve done in the field of conservation medicine.

By the time you are interviewed for a news show as the “expert,” you’re really kind of a prop, because the writers have already worked out what points they want to see raised (based on your earlier conversations, you hope), and you only have a chance to utter very brief sound bites in response to a few questions. You just pray that the interviewers don’t surprise you with a question from out of left field that leaves you looking a little less than authoritative, and that they give you a chance to express an idea that will leave the audience thinking about the importance of environmental conservation and their personal role in protecting ecosystems. You also hope that you did not have spinach in your teeth.

Usually, with a taped interview, they boil down 15 or 20 minutes to as little as two to four, so you stew until the program is aired, not knowing what will be emphasized. The program I was interviewed for this morning will be on the air Monday evening, so I’ll try to put the whole thing out of my mind over the weekend.

The second Thursday of every month, we have a meeting of the full staff of Wildlife Trust, which means that the employees from our Philadelphia and Sarasota offices join the New York staff. The meeting is typically part information-sharing, part strategizing, part socializing, and part celebrating. As soon as the TV crew leaves, we meet.

Alonso Aguirre inspects the health of a manatee.

Since it is the last full staff meeting of the fiscal year, we will celebrate the fact that we have never accomplished more on the ground, around the world than we did over the past 12 months. Happily, even in this continuing economic downturn, we were able to garner more support from foundations and government agencies than ever before, and our program grew. Helped no doubt in part by public fears about the West Nile virus and SARS, there was finally recognition from funders that our work studying wildlife disease as a threat to various endangered species is also important to people.

We have created a system of animal sentinels of pathogen pollution, and these pathogens can affect people as well as plants and animals. Our book, Conservation Medicine was published under the lead editorship of our director for conservation medicine, Alonso Aguirre. This book represents a first effort at defining this critically important new academic discipline and health practice.

Our Wildlife Trust Alliance has grown as more and more top scientists and conservationists seek to join us. The biggest leap for us this past year, however, has been in the size and reach of our national program. Wildlife Trust has built major programs in the New York area, which I will mention tomorrow, and in the southeastern U.S., where we conducted studies on the health and whereabouts of marine mammals.

North Atlantic right whale.

Photo: NOAA.

There was also cause for sadness this year. On Super Bowl Sunday, when most people were planning parties, four members of our whale watching team died when their plane crashed while they were identifying the locations of North Atlantic right whales off the coast of northern Florida. Our small, close-knit organization was devastated by this loss. Together with the friends and families of our lost colleagues, Wildlife Trust created a memorial, a fund that will be spent annually on projects to carry on their work to protect marine life around the world. During our meeting, we have a moment of silence to remember Emily, Jackie, Michael, and Tom.

Our meeting ends with a celebration of Victoria Soto’s impending marriage and enrollment for a doctorate in botany at the University of Georgia. We welcome Victoria’s replacement as conservation medicine program assistant, and also welcome our newest interns.

After the meeting, Claudio and I head back into the city to meet with Daniel Katz, the program officer of the Overbrook Foundation. Overbrook awarded a grant to Wildlife Trust and an Ecuador-based organization, Futuro LatinoAmericano, to develop skills in resource conflict negotiation for people involved in seemingly intractable conflicts over land use in Brazil, over the illegal pet trade in Mexico, and over petroleum extraction in Ecuador. Claudio hosted an organizing and skill-building meeting for teams of conflict arbitrators from each country, and is now following up with each team, to learn if the negotiation skills have had an impact on resolving resource conflict issues. We meet with Daniel to update him on progress of the joint project.

Tomorrow will be another full day, so I prepare for an early-morning meeting with board members on the status of our strategic planning process, and for an afternoon public lecture on conservation medicine in the New York Bioscape. What is a bioscape, you ask? I’ll explain tomorrow.