Posted November 27, 2018
Featuring Dalen Agnew

Not many veterinarians study Russian as an undergraduate.

“I wanted to be a diplomat,” says Dalen Agnew, DVM, PhD, DACVP, “until I realized you had to wear a tie all the time.”

Today, Agnew’s pathology laboratory contains hundreds of reproductive tracts from free-ranging and captive wildlife, including lions, elephants, and polar bears. Agnew, associate professor for the Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation, is documenting what these structures look like in wild species, as well as examining them for diseases.

“We don’t have a lot of information on these anatomical structures, so I’m trying to document what is available by collaborating with veterinarians across the country,” he says.

A veterinarian at the Detroit Zoo for nine years, Agnew knows firsthand how challenging captive wildlife medicine can be. Research is scant, and lack of information on the animals means that vets sometimes question their treatment plans.

“There is a sense of satisfaction in that you’re helping the animals,” he says, “but you can’t always follow up and you don’t know why they got sick or why they got better.”

Studying diseases, particularly reproductive diseases, in free-ranging wildlife is even more difficult.

“The diseases are different and there is a difference in what we know about the animals,” Agnew explains. “With wild animals, we don’t always know what caused their death. The hope is that we can learn something from zoo animals that will help us with free-ranging animals and vice versa.”

One particular area of research focus for Agnew is how reproduction is managed in both free-ranging and captive wild animals.

“Lions, for example, reproduce easily in captivity,” he says. “And in many cases, zoos and other facilities don’t have the space for them. Euthanasia as population control is not well-liked in the United States, so we have to use alternative methods, such as abstinence and contraception. But each of those options also has risks.”

Agnew explains that most contraception is done with hormones, and there are risks for certain diseases, such as mammary or uterine cancer, that go up in animals exposed to these extra hormones, much as they do in humans.

“Celibacy is not a benign process either,” he explains. “In the wild, an animal is meant to reproduce. If it doesn’t, it can lose that ability.”

Sterilization surgery also is an option, but can have affects beyond just controlling the population.

“Surgery is probably the most benign option,” Agnew says. “But removing those organs decreases hormone production, which affects the social structure of the animal groups. Hormones affect behavior. So, these are all the things that have to be taken into account when making decisions.”

As his veterinary career progressed, Agnew found a way to combine his long-standing interest in international relations with his work as a veterinarian. He mentored a graduate student, Dr. Benjamin Adu-Addai from Ghana, which reinforced the importance of international partnerships in successfully treating and managing diseases in both animals and humans.

In collaboration with John Kaneene, DVM, MPH, PhD, FAES, FAVES, University Distinguished Professor for the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, Agnew received a USDA grant for a program to bring 12 junior faculty members from veterinary colleges in Africa to MSU and Iowa State (6 to each institution). The program is designed to increase the African faculty members’ research and teaching skills, as well their technical knowledge. Each African faculty member is paired with a College mentor, who then visits the mentee after he or she returns to Africa and evaluates what has been implemented.

“I was just in Ethiopia visiting with one of the program participants,” Agnew says. “I do outreach around the world. Initially, I pursued research abroad, but now I mainly focus on capacity building. In Ethiopia, among other activities, I was helping to teach small ruminant and poultry diagnostics.”

Agnew also is trying to develop a digital necropsy platform for veterinarians in Africa, which would make veterinary services available in areas without a local vet.

“It all fits in with my goal of conservation,” he adds. “Healthier cows mean healthier wildlife and a healthier environment.”