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Got Zoobiquity?

Posted by: Dr. Deborah Jensen, President and CEO

Photo by Matt Hagen.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The first wealth is health.” It’s a truism that applies to all species. Although we may think our aches and pains are uniquely human, biologically speaking, Homo sapiens is just another species of animal. As a result, we are more similar genetically to other creatures than we are different, so we share many naturally occurring diseases. Health professionals caring for animals and humans often confront similar clinical questions, but to date don’t readily have avenues to work together on solutions.

Woodland Park Zoo is working to change that.

As global health challenges ask us to be more creative about our long-term well-being, we’re asking: what can we learn from a cross-species approach to health. Can we harness knowledge from both the veterinary and human medical sciences?

At the 4th annual Zoobiquity Conference, November 1, 2014, held at the University of Washington and Woodland Park Zoo, hundreds of leading scientists and practitioners will gather to respond to these questions by exploring the species-spanning effects that asthma, obesity, and air pollution and other health problems have on animals and humans. After morning panel sessions at UW, participants will gather at the zoo for Walking Rounds—lively case discussions informed by the zoo’s animals—with our own Dr. Darin Collins, WPZ Director of Animal Health and a member of the conference organizing committee, and our veterinary team. Dr. Brian Slinker, a WPZ board member and Dean of Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine also joins the dialogue.

The health of people and animals depends on an intimate relationship that is intricately woven into the health of our environment.

The term Zoobiquity was popularized by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D. and Kathryn Bowers in their 2012 book of the same name. In it they explore the spectrum of diseases that humans and animals share because of our common ancestry. Zoobiquity also advocates for cross-disciplinary communication among practitioners to spark new hypotheses and clinical approaches.

It won’t surprise you to learn that Dr. Collins and his zoo animal health team have been thinking about zoobiquity for a long time. They know that human medicine yields valuable insights when combined with modern veterinary expertise, opening up new possibilities for diagnosis and treatment. In turn, what veterinary scientists are learning about illnesses in animals, such as jaguar breast cancer, flamingo heart attacks, and respiratory problems in humans and animals is increasingly transforming human medicine.

Dr. Darin Collins discusses zoobiquity in MyZoo magazine’s Fall 2014 health issue, available to read online.

The zoo, for example, has a long history of collaborating with our region’s finest human medical and surgical teams to provide the latest approaches to treating illness. Take the recent case of Vip, our 35-year-old western lowland gorilla (his name affectionately stands for Very Important Primate). Our vet team’s approach to his complicated sinus infection, commonly treated in humans but rare in animals, is an excellent example of how we engage comparative medicine to help our zoo inhabitants thrive. 

And as the zoobiquity cross-talk deepens, what veterinary scientists are learning about naturally occurring disease is increasingly informing human medicine. Add to the mix what ecologists are learning about how the environment influences disease and an even richer mosaic of understanding evolves. This holistic, systems perspective is redefining the boundaries between animal and human medicine, and has much to teach us about how disorders develop and can be successfully treated.

Image courtesy of

For example, cancer is found throughout the animal kingdom—we all share DNA that can mutate to form tumors. Knowing that rhinos can develop cancer under their horns, the way humans can under their fingernails, or that jaguars and women are susceptible to the same kind of breast cancer, can help oncologists look for genetic and environmental factors that raise or lower risk. Similarly, all species are vulnerable to viruses and other microbes. In fact, we also share about 70 percent of infectious diseases—such as Ebola and West Nile virus—with other animals.

A presentation on penguins as sentinels for West Nile virus will be held at our Humboldt penguin exhibit during the Zoobiquity Conference’s walking rounds.

Zoos are a front line for detecting, treating and monitoring diseases that cross from animals to humans. In 1999, the Bronx Zoo was key to unraveling the mystery surrounding West Nile when first detected in the Western Hemisphere, in New York City. After noticing a sudden increase in the number of dead crows in local neighborhoods, and then dead flamingos and owls on the zoo’s grounds, zoo scientists connected the pattern of disease to one also mysteriously affecting local people, which turned out to be mosquito-borne. The discovery informed early research and development of potential vaccines. So far, mosquito control is the most effective prevention.

As the virus spread westward, Woodland Park partnered with state and federal agencies to campaign for public awareness and to protect vulnerable species, particularly birds and horses. Our own Dr. Collins also took part in an avian influenza surveillance project in Indonesia to help mitigate further spread to animals and humans in that part of the world.

How can YOU get more zoobiquity? Download our free Woodland Park Zoo app and look for the Zoobiquity mobile tour in the Maps section. You'll get to know your favorite animals through the lens of caring experts who’ve got health covered, like in the case of miniature donkey Sam's allergy to hay! Photo by Ric Brewer/WPZ.

Today, zoobiquity dialogues would seem like an obvious best practice, but this is a new sensibility. It has not always been highly valued. 

In the past, most pre-med students were not required to study evolutionary biology, which places disease in the context of species’ adaptations to changing environments. And, while ecologists studied ecosystems and species at population levels, veterinarians were studying diseases of individual animals (and sometimes wild animals). 

Now, we are already observing that changes in the environment result in changes in wild animal diseases. Some even jump across species, giving all health scientists more reasons to seek each other out. When they do, they often talk about OneHealth, a lens focused on the interconnections among all our planet’s inhabitants. The goal is to learn how those relationships lead to thriving or to sickness, and to collaborate on creating solutions. 

Ultimately, veterinarians, physicians, and environmental scientists share the same fundamental interest: to heal their patients—animal, human, and planet. Our health depends on it.