Tufts University

Where the Wild Things Are

Mark PokrasAs head of the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine’s Wildlife Clinic, environmental crusader Mark Pokras teaches his students to view veterinary medicine through a conservation lens - and to communicate the message that human, animal and environmental health are interlinked.

Mark Pokras, 55, has always been invested in the environment and its inhabitants. But it wasn’t until one day in his late twenties, when he saw a fluttering brown blur through his car window, that the wildlife biologist (who had also worked as an environmental consultant and instructor of marine biology) decided to combine studying wild animals with treating them.

"I [was] driving home from work one day, and I looked down at the side of the road," says Pokras. "There was this brown thing flopping around in the grass, and it was a hurt hawk. I stopped, picked it up, wrapped it in a jacket, and then tried to find somebody to take it to, and there was nobody. I took it home and it died."

Pokras’ frustration over the incident catalyzed his decision to focus on veterinary medicine. With his wife Martha, he founded a wildlife rehabilitation center. Then, at age 30, he entered the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine. A member of the second class to graduate from the school, he’s now on the faculty there, and his wife is an executive associate dean.

Pokras is not purely a professor; he's also the head of the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine’s Wildlife Clinic, where he works with veterinary students to treat between 1,500 and 2,000 wild animals a year. ("This week we’ve had turtles, snakes, a bobcat, birds and a tarantula," Pokras says of the always-busy clinic, adding, "We’ve got students here seven days a week, 365 days a year.")

Pokras’ approach to the veterinary profession (veterinarians, he says, have a combination of medical, community and environmental obligations) remains rooted in the concept of conservation.

"We’re taught all the way through veterinary school how what we learn about individual animals affects populations - not just populations of that animal, but other populations as well," Pokras says. "This multiple species outlook really makes veterinarians a wonderful group of professionals to look at environmental issues, because you’re trained to look at the individual level and the population level, and you’re trained to look at how groups of different species living together can affect one another."

The rise of "conservation medicine"-in which the doctor or veterinarian takes the health of multiple species into account - isn’t beneficial only to animals, Pokras says.

"Veterinarians can detect what is going on in an animal population that might threaten human population," Pokras says. "If you look at West Nile virus, the first thing anyone saw with that were crows dying in Central Park and the Bronx Zoo. Whether we’re looking at crows and West Nile virus or marine animals and red tide kind of outbreaks, we can detect things that might threaten human health. We need to look at these sentinels and ask, What are they telling us about changes in the world around us?"

Pokras is teaching his students to both ask and answer that question, urging them to make medical decisions within a large-scale public health and environmental context.

"Having students go out and be able to represent all these diverse groups of animals and environmental complexity in their community is really important," he says. "What’s the role of the veterinarian in their community? It’s not just somebody to give your cat shots; it’s somebody who can do the medical care and who can help people in the community understand how these diverse populations of animals and people fit together.

"We want our graduates to be real resources for their communities," he adds. "We want them to be able to present to the public and to their clients this issue of balance: how do we balance the rights of people versus the rights of domestic animals versus the rights of wildlife?"

Mark Pokras

"We want the veterinarian to see all the different pieces of the puzzle; to see that there are many different points of view, and there is validity to all these different points," he says. "We want them to have this background of knowledge about ecology and wildlife and conservation that they can then bring to their communities."

In addition to treating animals and training students, Pokras is contributing to that balance on a policy level. "We’ve made some inroads on eliminating sources of lead in the environment, and I would love to make some more significant changes," he says of his research with fellow Tufts wildlife biologists into the effects of lead fishing weights on common loons.

Pokras’ research, which has been ongoing since 1988, spurred additional investigations into the effects materials like lead and mercury have on wildlife. "There are now new regulations around incineration and burning of soft coals," he says. "We were that little pebble that started the snowball."

Turning research "pebbles" into policy "snowballs" is a process that Pokras-who spends "a fair amount of [his] time on environmental policy related to health"-deems "hugely important, but also incredibly frustrating."

"It is glacial in its pace, trying to educate policy makers and putting together legislation that will have some meaningful effect on the environment," he says. "And that’s why I want to escape back to the clinic, where things actually happen, where you can make a difference with your own two hands."

Thirty years ago, Pokras couldn’t have envisioned a veterinary career that combined such direct, hands-on medical work with more abstract environmental community and policy efforts.

"I’d been interested in the environmental stuff and then I got interested in the medical stuff, so I was like, 'How do I put these two things together?'" he says. "They seemed very disparate, and at that point, there weren’t any veterinary schools in the world offering that sort of training."

Then, Pokras’ aunt sent him an article on a new veterinary school - at Tufts - that was set to open in 1979. "I had never before seen ‘veterinary medicine’ and ‘environmental’ in the same place, and it was like, ‘This is where I want to go; this is cool,’" he says.

After graduating, Pokras worked for a year with the Massachusetts Audubon Society to integrate a health perspective into their conservation program. He returned to Tufts for his residency, and has been there ever since - teaching students both in classes and at the clinic.

"You don’t stay in this kind of activity for this many years unless you really like interacting with the students, and we’ve got phenomenal students," Pokras says. "The issue isn’t motivating them in order to spoon-feed little bits of information into them, the issue is running fast enough as an educator to keep up with the speed of their minds. We could do good quality medicine and make more money in private practice, but getting to interact with the students is something special."

Many of those students, inspired by their interactions with Pokras and his colleagues, immerse themselves in far-reaching medical and environmental work while still in school. "We [had] eighteen students doing international and environmental research projects with us this summer," Pokras says.

Following their graduation, many of Pokras’ students have continued to work on initiatives that meld veterinary medicine and environmental awareness. "Dr. Jeff Mariner was a student in our international program and has gone on to develop this thermostable rinderpest vaccine, almost effectively clearing an entire continent of a serious disease," he says. "That’s just staggering."

Other graduates have researched the effects of oil spills on the marine environment, worked with endangered birds in Southeast Asia, and worked with endangered sea turtles off the coast of the United States.

Graduates are making a difference within local communities as well. "Effecting positive change happens on all different levels," Pokras says. "It can be that level of global impact, but often, everybody has their own strengths. It can be just somebody who is just a good dog and cat veterinarian in their own community."

Despite successes large and small, Pokras is not yet satisfied.

"This is a small school, this is a small program; there are very few of us," he says. "In this whole building, if you take the Center for Conservation Medicine, International Veterinary Program and the Wildlife Clinic, we have seven or eight veterinarians. It’s hard to change the world with seven or eight people."

But it’s Pokras’ philosophy that changing the world starts with changing people’s attitudes towards the world. And by engraining a sense of environmental responsibility in his students-and encouraging them to share it with their future clientele-that may be just what he’s doing.

"We want the veterinarian to see all the different pieces of the puzzle; to see that there are many different points of view, and there is validity to all these different points," he says. "We want them to have this background of knowledge about ecology and wildlife and conservation that they can then bring to their communities."

Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at this July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

This story originally ran on Oct. 11, 2004