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Summer 2003


All Creatures, One Medicine

At 25, Tufts Veterinary School is redefining the future

photos by Richard Howard and Andrew Cunningham

Also see the related stories Compassion Unbound and Exploring Frontiers

Dr. Flo Tseng lifts the limp Canada goose to the examining table and begins to look for signs of what she suspects is poisoning. The bird was brought into the Tufts Wildlife Clinic from the same park where just the week before a concerned citizen had found ailing ducks; seven mallards have already died, despite the clinic’s efforts to revive them.

The goose can barely lift its long neck, and the wings and legs are flaccid. The bird may have come in contact with an environmental toxin, perhaps botulism. “Botulism tends to happen later in the summer, when the pond levels are low and the decaying plant material reduces oxygen levels in the water,” says Tseng, assistant director of the Wildlife Clinic.

“Let’s give her some IV fluids, and see if we can’t get some activated charcoal into her system to start working on whatever toxicity is there,” she says to the Tufts veterinary students who are on a two-week rotation in the clinic. “We’ll give her some antibiotics as well, and watch her; maybe she’ll rally.”

But within 24 hours, the goose’s condition has worsened, and Tseng makes the tough decision to euthanize. She will send the goose to the National Wildlife Health Center, where biologists may be able to isolate and identify the deadly toxin.

“Individual animals, that’s usually what people care about,” says Tseng, as she pauses to review the next case on a whiteboard chart listing of other patients recently brought to the clinic. Most, in time, will be wild again: a Cooper’s hawk with a wing injury, an orphan bunny, a thumb-sized baby opossum, a bobcat with a dislocated hip.

But Tseng points out, there is another aspect of her profession that the general public rarely sees. Veterinarians are also looking for larger patterns in the environment. “Anything you see in one animal might well suggest a wider problem encompassing humans, animals, and the habitat,” she says. “If there’s something going on out there that might impact public health, quite often we’re the first people to see it; we could well be the first line of defense.”

Each day, unvarnished matters of life and death stamp the work that goes on at the Tufts Veterinary School. To visit any corner of the Grafton campus on any given day reveals not only a depth of expertise and compassion for animals, but a range of challenges that often places veterinarians in complex and influential roles, where their compassion extends into a widening circle of influence.
Over the past 25 years, the school has become a magnet for some of the most sophisticated and high-tech veterinary research in the country. Veterinarians and researchers explore issues that intersect disciplines as diverse as reproductive biology, behavior, infectious disease, nutrition, oncology, and environmental conservation. Each year, the Tufts hospitals and clinics bring rigorous inquiry to the care of thousands of small and large animals, offering the best in modern medicine to pets as well as domestic livestock, exotic animals, and wildlife.
If that breadth means the school defies a neat definition, that’s fine with Dean Philip C. Kosch. In its teaching, research, and clinical care, Tufts Veterinary School, he said, is engaged in addressing a spectrum of issues that relate to animals, humans, and society. It is a commitment to innovation that has characterized Tufts Veterinary School from its humble beginnings.

“I like to call this a start-up school with an upstart attitude,” said Kosch, a self-described “green dean” and an unabashed advocate for elevating the school’s impact in areas such as conservation, public health, international programs, animal public policy, and interdisciplinary biomedical research. “Being bold, flexible, and strategic has led to our reputation; if you want new paths in veterinary education, you look to Tufts.”


The school made its first impression when it opened a quarter century ago in a recently closed mental hospital in North Grafton, Massachusetts, acquired from the Commonwealth for the grand sum of $1. The future site of the new central New England campus was, at best, sprawling: 582 acres dominated by abandoned buildings and surrounded by unkempt fields.

But it was also a considerable triumph. Tufts president Jean Mayer had fought long and hard for a New England–based veterinary school. New England students were practically shut out of veterinary training, he argued, as virtually all other U.S. veterinary schools were part of large state universities, and obligated to admit in-state residents first.

The new campus, he asserted, was a natural extension and augmentation of Tufts Dental and Medical Schools, with their own established leadership in health care. Tufts University, with a Veterinary School (and a School of Nutrition Science and Policy to soon follow) would create a constellation of professional expertise unrivaled anywhere in the country.

Taking off at a brisk clip, the school has matured at an astonishing pace; today, the Grafton campus encompasses a 250-acre working farm set amidst modern teaching hospitals and centers for specialized study. Its reputation has spread as its facilities for teaching and research have grown to include Tufts Ambulatory Farm Clinic in Woodstock, Connecticut, providing practical hands-on experience in a setting typical of most large animal practices in New England, and the Tufts Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service in Walpole, Massachusetts.

“The Veterinary School is a jewel in the crown of Tufts University,” said President Lawrence S. Bacow. “It ranks among the best veterinary schools in the nation and is a key component in Massachusetts’ research infrastructure. The quality of research, clinical expertise, and teaching excellence at the Veterinary School is extraordinary. And I have come to realize that people who devote their lives to animals are among the most caring, compassionate, and unselfish men and women that I know.”

Prima, a 31-year-old Standardbred, stands alert in a stall at the Tufts Hospital for Large Animals. With his ears up and glossy chestnut coat, he looks the picture of youth; his owner enjoys riding him along the winding trails near her home. But three years ago she noticed that Prima was having trouble on the hills. He was huffing and puffing, and had difficulty catching his breath.

What Prima had developed was heaves, a dysfunction brought on by inflammation and constriction of the airways and characterized by labored breathing. Fortunately for Prima, Tufts is one of the few places in the country where horses, both pleasure animals and high-level athletes, can have their lung function analyzed, enabling veterinarians to give more precise and effective treatment. Prima’s first appointment at the Issam M. Fares Equine Sports Medicine Program got him started immediately on the road to wellness.

Today, Prima is back for a checkup. Dr. Melissa Mazan, V93, director of the Equine Sports Medicine Program, is joined by several fourth-year students on their three-week rotation. With help from Mazan, they analyze the results of the lung function testing they have just performed. The news is good. Prima’s lungs now function as well as those of a normal horse—although he will need to stay on inhaled medications for the rest of his life.

“He looks great,” says Mazan, giving the gelding a reassuring pat. His age, she adds, is not that remarkable, as pleasure horses given conscientious care are increasingly living well into their second, and with some luck, even third decades, and Prima “has a very dedicated owner. Here’s a good example where a horse, valuable to his owner as an athletic companion, can profit from the same diagnostics and therapeutics that you would use for a top racehorse or international jumper.”

Each day, the professional training of future veterinarians takes place in countless scenarios such as Prima’s visit to the Hospital for Large Animals. Analytical skills, hands-on experience with the animals, interaction with and sensitivity to the animal owner, are part of any veterinarian’s solid education. But from the beginning, Tufts differentiated itself from other veterinary schools by developing five signature programs of study that encourage students to consider how their profession intersects with the larger themes of medicine, science, and society: Ethics and Values in Veterinary Medicine, Wildlife Medicine, Equine Sports Medicine, Biomedical Technology, and International Veterinary Medicine.

“It was with foresight that early leaders, in particular former dean Frank Loew, foresaw how veterinarians would lend their talents to solving a whole array of social, cultural, and environmental issues,” said Kosch. “He essentially reinvented the education of veterinary professionals by making these thematic programs legitimate areas of scholarly study and research.”

The focus on Ethics and Values, for instance, is now based at the Center for Animals and Public Policy, the first of its kind in the country. Founded in 1983, the center anticipated the inherent complexity of ethics, values, and public policy with regard to how animals and humans live together. In addition, the unique graduate program in Animals and Public Policy is going strong as it enters its ninth year.

Among the center’s highlights has been influencing a subject increasingly in the press: animal hoarding. Dr. Gary Patronek and colleagues began tracking hoarding incidents in 1997, and subsequently changed laws and language nationwide, including establishing a link between the human behavior of animal hoarding and mental illness.

“It’s one more piece of evidence that the status of people and animals is intimately connected,” said Patronek, “and it demonstrated how the center has brought the credibility of a university and a broad, interdisciplinary focus to bear on a social problem.”

Dr. George Saperstein doesn’t put much stock in what he calls a “rural legend” about Tennessee fainting goats. Allegedly this particular breed was once used to guard sheep because when startled, they have an unfortunate tendency to go suddenly rigid and fall over, and thus become a distraction for preying coyotes. “I don’t buy it,” says Saperstein. “You’d run out of goats pretty quickly.”
Saperstein is nonetheless impressed by the goats for the unusual genetic misfiring that gave them their name. Leaning over a stall door in a campus barn, he introduces three diminutive members of this rare and endangered breed: Spot, Dip, and Rita.

  Dr. George Saperstein, Amelia Peabody Professor of Agricultural Science and chair of the Department of Environmental and Population Health, is working with a variety of endangered breeds of domestic sheep, goats and cattle to create a “library” of genetic material by freezing and storing the animals' semen, embryos, and cells. Above, Dr. Saperstein and veterinary technician Rachel Sora

Sure enough, as Saperstein enters the stall, Spot becomes skittish and her rear legs seize up. “That’s the rigidity in the hindquarters I was telling you about,” he says, pointing out the prominent leg muscles that characterize this breed. “We don’t know exactly why it happens, but it has to do with the fact that all members of the breed possess the congenital myotonia gene, a gene which is also associated with heavy muscle development. The stiffness mistaken for ‘fainting’ lasts only a short time and we believe it may be related to Thomsen’s disease in people.”

It’s hard to imagine, but Dip, Spot, and Rita may be genetic links to what Saperstein calls a future “Jurassic Park” for domestic livestock. “These breeds are rare because they have not been ‘improved’ by animal breeders. Therefore, their genetics are largely unchanged and they possess the same pool of genes their ancestors had centuries ago. They are genetic gifts to us from the past and it is our responsibility to safeguard those genes should they ever be needed in the future.”

Saperstein, chair of the Department of Environmental and Population Health, in collaboration with Dr. Eric Overström, associate professor of biomedical sciences, is co-directing an interdisciplinary project that’s likely to have paramount importance in building a stable supply of food and fiber domestic animals. Working with a variety of endangered breeds of domestic sheep, goats, and cattle, they and two other faculty members are working on the first privately funded program of its kind: creating a “library” of genetic material by freezing and storing the animals’ semen, embryos, and cells.

By preserving these older “heritage breeds,” they expect to have a wide impact on public health in future scenarios. Mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, anthrax, and many other livestock scourges can decimate a herd rather quickly, causing economic devastation and in some cases a public health crisis. Threats of “agroterrorism,” the intentional use of livestock disease in bioterrorism, underscores the importance of protecting genetic variability of livestock since disease-resistant genes may be hidden within discarded breeds.

“If a modern commercial breed of livestock were to be decimated, by forces natural or man-made, that breed would be lost forever, taking with it valuable genetic characteristics,” says Saperstein. “Rebuilding the genetic base of commercial livestock is but one example of the value of preserving endangered breeds.” These goats,” he says, “may be considered ‘freaks’ by some, but we need them as animal models for genetic research, possibly to be used for gene therapy in animals some day. You never know what answers may lie in their gene pool; maybe the treatment for muscular dystrophy. Someday they may be little treasures from the past.”

The genetic “library” offers a glimpse into one way that Tufts veterinarians intersect with public health. The scientists are, among other things, well positioned to call attention to naturally occurring or intentionally introduced zoonotic infectious diseases—diseases that can be transmitted to humans by animals. These conditions represent three-fourths of the world’s emerging infectious diseases, including West Nile virus, SARS, and monkeypox.

Ten years ago, Tufts became the first veterinary school to grant a dual degree in public health. Veterinary students can supplement their training with courses from Tufts Medical School and obtain both a veterinary degree and a master’s of public health (DVM/MPH) in just four years. Since Tufts started the program, the seriousness of public health preparedness has been on everyone’s mind, the legacy of 9/11, anthrax attacks, and global outbreaks of infectious diseases. Other veterinary schools are now following Tufts’ lead by establishing similar programs.

Progress has also been made in the signature program in international veterinary medicine. The first of its kind in the nation, it has gone on to apply veterinary medical principles to wildlife conservation, as well as developing programs to support sustainable agriculture in the context of local cultures and traditions.

Dr. Christine Jost, V96, F03, assistant professor of international veterinary medicine, brings her veterinary and Fletcher School degrees to projects whose success depends on interdisciplinary training and outlooks. In Burkina Faso, for example, a collaboration between the Veterinary School and the School of Engineering, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is exploring how climate forecasting can enhance the use of precious agricultural resources. In Nepal, a program supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) looks at improving livestock services and animal health-care delivery at the community level by researching diseases and other issues associated with livestock food production. Tufts veterinary students are paired with Nepalese veterinary students to develop public health intervention programs.

“The point is that the human-animal relationship is really critical to individual and community survival,” says Jost. “The role of the veterinarian is to be a problem-solving thinker. In these communities that are so dependent on animals, it’s essential to consider that relationship when we talk about community development.”

The baby snapping turtle is no bigger than a deck of cards, so try as he might to sink his neck into the dark safety of his shell he cannot escape the tweezers hovering over his tiny lower jaw. “Your neck is only so long!” says Dr. Tara Rittle, an intern at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic. She gently places a drop of epoxy where a small piece of wire has stabilized a fracture. Tufts student Heather Blake, V04, observes that the feisty turtle has gained weight; his injury hasn’t interfered with a healthy appetite for aquatic turtle sticks. But veterinarians won’t release him back to the wild until his jaw is as good as new.

Animal patients come in all shapes and sizes at the Wildlife Clinic, with a vigilant obligation to help creatures hurt, abandoned, or “abducted”—such as the baby robin brought in by a well-meaning citizen. The bird would have been better off if left alone.

Teaching future veterinarians about how they can do their part to preserve the precious ecological balance is an obligation central to the school’s mission. The clinic was the only comprehensive facility of its kind in the country when it opened in 1983, and it still is. Tufts is also the only veterinary school in the country that requires its fourth-year students to do a core rotation in a wildlife clinic.

“There is a tremendous learning opportunity here for students who want to explore the wide opportunities for working with animals, whether in the wild, in zoos, or with nonprofits concerned about the environment,” says Dr. Flo Tseng, assistant professor and assistant director of the Wildlife Clinic. “But it’s also a way for students to realize that most of what they see here comes in because of what people have done to them. They see firsthand our philosophy of giving injured animals a second chance. When certain animals have been released back into the wild, there has been follow-up that shows the animals do live and continue to propagate. That’s enormously rewarding.”

In 1997, the natural synergy between the Wildlife Clinic and the International Program led to an exciting new initiative. Taking the concept of a new multidisciplinary field that would focus on the health relationships that occur at the interface of humans, animals, and ecosystems, Tufts established the Center for Conservation Medicine.

Tufts veterinarians are now conducting the first comprehensive study of patterns of morbidity and mortality in seabirds along the New England and Atlantic Canada coastline. This information is generated in part by citizen scientists conducting surveys of beached birds. Their findings will be combined with information on other variables such as oil spills and infectious disease incidence to help scientists determine trends in marine ecosystem health.

“If there is one area in which we need to position ourselves to be a leader in the future, I would have to say it is the environment,” says Kosch. “Humans are degrading the environment at an unprecedented rate. I can’t think of a bigger societal challenge to which veterinarians can contribute then reconciling both conservation of natural resources, including sustainable wildlife populations and the world’s biodiversity, and sustainable agricultural development with needed productivity growth in food, fiber, and forest products.

“This challenge—locally, regionally, nationally, and globally—will eventually become of paramount importance to us all, not just because we risk the loss of biodiversity and pristine ecosystems, but also because our own health and that of our families will be at risk. Veterinarians understand instinctively that we share the planet with fellow species. We are holistic in our thinking. We see an obligation that every graduate should be aware of these environmental issues.”

Kosch remains confident about the future of the school. The institution has not only established a solid identity and reputation, but it has shown how it can partner with other schools within the university. With eight schools, most of which have natural affinities to the veterinary school—the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the School of Engineering, the Fletcher School, for instance—the university, he predicts, will find that interdisciplinary solutions will flourish in an atmosphere strongly encouraged by President Lawrence S. Bacow.

“Tufts has a collaborative view toward problem solving,” Kosch says. “While we’re comparatively smaller than other universities, when we get together, things happen. The working relationships in a relatively intimate, small university can be quite remarkably productive.”

He is encouraged as well by the passion that students bring with them. Following requests from Tufts students in the late 1980s, Tufts became the first school in the country to cease euthanizing healthy animals for teaching purposes.

Kosch also notes how Tufts students achieve after graduation. A case in point: Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine routinely does very well on the national match of internships and residencies. This year the school had 40 matches, far more than any other school. “Our students increasingly seek coveted advanced clinical training slots, and it’s a pleasure to know that they’re considered among the best in the country,” Kosch says.

Success is also measured by the admissions process. The school now receives nearly 800 applications for only 80 openings—a ratio of ten to one. Each entering class is predictably highly motivated, says Kosch, given that tuition is one of the highest in the country. “When they come to Tufts they come because they have found something particularly satisfying—it’s not just to earn a D.V.M.”

Still, Kosch admits to a constant worry about the bottom line. Like most health science campuses, veterinary schools are expensive operations. And as a private veterinary school, Tufts has a daunting balance sheet. Of the 27 accredited veterinary schools in the United States, all of them are large, land-grant state universities—except for Tufts and the University of Pennsylvania. On average, state schools receive appropriations of $17 million; subsidies for the University of Pennsylvania total $35.5 million. Tufts’ total state subsidy is currently $3 million—down from more than $5 million two years ago.

Given the state’s struggle with budget shortfalls, the Massachusetts legislature has been hard-pressed for higher education funds in general. Kosch says that Tufts is grateful for the public support it does receive. “The governor and legislators recognize the value of what the school contributes to public health and economic development in the Commonwealth,” he says.

Crucial support from private funders takes many forms. Over the years, the care provided by veterinarians and staff at the Foster Hospital for Small Animals, for instance, has prompted grateful owners to memorialize furred family members like Panda, a golden retriever, in whose memory an outpatient exam room was donated, and Buddy, a cat fondly remembered on a plaque outside the Ultrasound Suite.

Dr. Henry Foster, V83, H92, and his wife, Lois, provided pivotal early support for the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals, built in 1985. When the facility opened, it accommodated 12,000 patients a year; but now closer to 24,000 animals are treated here annually. Recently, Foster provided a leadership gift to spur a $3.25 million hospital renovation and expansion; the work includes the expansion of the intensive care unit and emergency room and a ward specifically for cats, funded with a gift from veterinary overseer Agnes Varis, H03.


Foster’s advocacy has deep roots. He graduated from the Massachusetts-based Middlesex Veterinary School of Medicine, New England’s second attempt at a university-based veterinary school (the first, started by Harvard in 1883, shut down in 1900). Middlesex closed in 1947, and Foster became a close disciple of Tufts president Jean Mayer as they went about convincing skeptics that the Tufts professional school would meet a growing demand for veterinary education in New England.

As he’s watched the school transform, he’s also observed the unchanging emotional bond that brings animals and people together, an inner love he sees burning bright in “starry-eyed young people,” who continue to want to assume hefty tuition debts for the privilege of being a veterinarian.

“There are certain people who have an inexplicable and profound love for animals,” said Foster, who received an “honorary” Tufts veterinary degree in 1983. ‘”They take each animal’s case to heart. I’ve been at the hospital when they have to talk to pet owners about the dilemma of a terminal illness, and they talk to owners like it was their child at a human hospital. At Commencement each year I deliver the ‘Veterinary Oath’ and every time, at this precise moment of truth, it’s thrilling to see these graduates go out into the world with joy and happiness and pride in their profession.”

And in the end, that oath describes what Tufts veterinarians strive to achieve each day, to bring their “knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, and conservation of livestock resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.”

Student Seth Ganz, V05, summed it up best as he paused between surgeries. “What’s great about Tufts is that you have a really amazing group of experts doing research constantly who can apply and reapply what they learn here in the hospital; it’s a unique driving force,” he said. “It has built Tufts’ reputation because they’re always trying new things. They seem to be the first to ask: where is the horizon?”