Student illustrations bring The Wildlife Book to life

When veterinary student Laura Donohue learned Cortland Seafood had fresh, whole fish, she immediately ordered a few perch and went home to dissect them at her kitchen counter. What resulted — perching organs, scales and tiny bones lined up in garbage bags and plastic wrap — might have been a terrifying sight for anyone outside the veterinary profession, but it was enlightening Donohue. She wanted to see for herself where the fish’s spleen was in relation to its stomach.

The College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) provides its veterinary students with comprehensive anatomy classes, but Donohue was on assignment for another project: drawing illustrations for a new wildlife book coming out soon from Johns Hopkins University Press.

“I was asked to illustrate general lesions in a disease affecting fish,” she says. “When I was painting it, I realized I didn’t really understand the relationship between the spleen, liver, and stomach. Can you see the liver at the same time as the spleen, at the same time as the stomach, or do I have to show it with the liver removed? I needed to research myself.”

Donohue, DVM ’22, blends her artistic talents and passion for animals in the illustrations for “Wildlife Health and Disease in Conservation.” The book showcases more than 100 of her drawings, which depict cycles of common wildlife diseases as well as their social, cultural, and economic impacts. With the exception of one art class as a college student, Donohue has been self-taught and painted since childhood.

Illustration by Laura Donohue, DVM ’22, depicting how waterfowl share a diverse habitat with many species.

The book’s co-editors, David Jessup, a UC Davis wildlife veterinarian, W Robin Radcliffeassociate professor of wildlife practice and conservation medicine at CVM, invited Donohue to join the project last year.

“When we found out that Laura had gone to the supermarket and bought fish and laid them out there on her kitchen counter, we knew we had hired the right person for the job,” Radcliffe says.

Donohue had originally planned to take part in one of Radcliffe’s educational trips to Indonesia in 2020, but due to pandemic restrictions, the trip was cancelled. Although Cornell was unable to send her halfway across the world as planned, Radcliffe saw a unique opportunity to simultaneously provide her with an educational opportunity suited to her needs while breathing the multicolored life into his new and revised collection for Jessup.

“Art and aesthetics can inspire people to care about and act on serious problems that we certainly face in terms of single health and environmental issues,” says Jessup, referring to the concept that the health of wildlife, pets, humans, and the environment are closely related.

Donohue’s art accompanies each of the twenty-five chapters that focus on diseases ranging from Ebola in the endangered mountain gorilla to avian malaria and the extinction of Hawaiian forest birds.

Each chapter also touches on important non-biological drivers of disease, including the social, financial, legal, and political factors at play. “Hopefully, done well enough, along with the illustrations, the book will be useful to policymakers and stakeholders who may not have a strong biomedical education, and who can also influence how society deals with and sustains health and disease,” says Jessup. . .

This is where Donohue comes in, Radcliffe adds. “I was able to capture the landscape of disease risk—all the elements that contribute to disease that might affect conservation efforts. Maybe for some it’s habitat loss or increased relocation, for example. Laura helped articulate those ideas and gave the book a really rich visual element.”

case based learning

Many of Donohue’s illustrations show disease cycles in action and animal systems in each chapter.

“One of the things I love about Cornell is the way we learn using real-life situations,” Donohue said. “That was an extension of that. I’m a very visual person, and the book was a mixture of science, art and learning for me.”

Among my favorite chapters to work on was a chapter on diseases of waterfowl by Jessup. “I worked with him to refresh the images, especially related to food poisoning,” says Donohue. “We usually see food poisoning outbreaks as a result of flooding, but there are other methods like tillage or irrigation, which can kill invertebrates or small animals, which can breed spores.” Donohue’s illustration depicts the behavior of ducks as an example, ingesting poison and dying in droves.

“Some of my favorite illustrations are the ones that show the organs in the body as the bird goes about its daily life,” says Donohue. “I draw them as you might see them in nature. It’s a great way to learn the cycles of life.”

Achieving the desired artistic effects while remaining scientifically rigorous meant Donohue was in constant contact with the authors of Chapter 45. After meeting via Zoom or phone for a conversation about the author’s goals for the chapter, Donohue would sketch ideas and field them with follow-up questions. I created a WordPress site specifically for tracking drafts and providing feedback on them.

“I had to make sure I was on the right track before I spent a lot of time on a sketch, as there was a lot to do,” Donohue says. “Sometimes I’d share a sketch where one of the animals included was just a box, and they trusted me to make them deeper as we went along.”

“Laura was friendly, responsive, and welcoming throughout the design process for my class,” says Andy Ramey, director of the Molecular Environment Laboratory at the USGS in Alaska. Ramey wrote a chapter, “Avian Flu in Wild Birds,” for which Donohue created three custom illustrations, including a cover image highlighting research on avian influenza in western Alaska.

Donohue also demonstrated the generalized ecology of influenza A viruses in wild birds and indirect hosts, as well as some common signs and lesions associated with highly pathogenic influenza A virus infection in wild birds. “You provide vivid, clear examples of what a person might notice in the field or clinic if they encounter a bird infected with this ecologically and economically important disease,” says Rami.

Jessup was particularly influenced by his drawings of sea otters and bighorn sheep. Bighorn sheep designs, in particular, help explain a bacterial pneumonia process that has eluded wildlife health professionals’ understanding for nearly three decades. “It’s very helpful,” says Jessup. “Many others show the impact of landscape and environment on wildlife diseases or health problems.”

“Laura even makes difficult concepts like virus evolution come to life by showing disease transmission over time as viruses move across both species and geographic barriers,” says Radcliffe.

The potential for worldwide influence

The editors hope that the combination of rigorous science, storytelling, and illustration will make the book a useful guide for readers. “We hope it will open the world of wildlife health professionals to a wider audience, and inspire current and future generations to deal more effectively with wildlife health, disease and conservation,” says Jessup.

Radcliffe anticipates that the illustrations, in particular, will help solidify the information in the minds of readers. “Many of the people using this in other parts of the world may not be speaking English, so it can have a bigger impact,” he says.

“I’m proud to have worked on this book with the editors and authors,” says Donohue. “I feel I have contributed to the learning that comes from it, not only for me but for those in the world who will use it when I publish it.”

“Wildlife Health and Disease in Conservation” will be available from Johns Hopkins University Press in 2023. Funding for this project and Donohue’s position came from Cornell; University of California, Davis; Wildlife Disease Association, USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services; International Wildlife Veterinary Services. American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians; and vets without borders.

Melanie Grever Cordova is the Assistant Director of Communications for the College of Veterinary Medicine.

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