A Day in the Life of a DNR Wildlife Veterinarian

Office of Performance and Transformation's Communication Representative Monica Drake will be following different State of Michigan employees throughout the year.
Prior to moving to Michigan last year, Dr. Kelly Straka, Supervisor of the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Health Section, developed a similar program for the state of Missouri.

While working in Missouri, she reached out to Steve Schmitt, now her predecessor at the Michigan DNR, because she wanted to model Missouri’s Wildlife Health Section after Michigan’s.

“Michigan has one of the best state wildlife health programs in the entire country,” said Straka. “And now I get to work here. It’s the pinnacle of my career.”

As soon as the position opened at the DNR’s Wildlife Disease Laboratory, Straka, who worked as the wildlife veterinarian for the Missouri Department of Conservation for four years, knew she had to apply. 

“You probably have a dream company or agency that you always wanted to work for. That’s what I got. I got my dream job,” she said. “I work, bar none, with some of the best people I have ever met.”

When Straka tells most people that she works as a wildlife veterinarian, they’ll respond, “That’s so cool! So, you fix up wildlife animals?”

“Not exactly,” she said.

Straka’s job is to ensure healthy populations of animals by working to prevent the spread of disease.

“We are concerned with anything that could be contagious or infectious to domestic animals, livestock, and people and anything that could have a population impact on wildlife,” she said.

Two of DNR’s biggest concerns are bovine tuberculosis (TB) and chronic wasting disease (CWD). Testing has revealed that most of the TB positive animals are located in the northeastern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula near the four corners where the counties of Montmorency, Alpena, Oscoda, and Alcona meet. TB can spread between deer and cattle, and humans can contract TB – although thoroughly cooking the meat does kill the bacteria that cause the disease.

CWD is an emerging disease in Michigan, with the first positive case found in captive deer in 2008 and free-ranging deer in 2015. Since then, more than 15,000 deer have been tested. Ten cases of CWD have been confirmed in free-ranging white-tailed deer in Clinton, Ingham, and Montcalm counties.

“The tricky thing with this disease is that the only valid test right now is postmortem. We’re relying on hunters to bring us samples,” said Straka.

Before consuming it, Straka urged hunters to bring the deer head to a check station to be tested for CWD and/or TB.

“We want people to continue hunting and to continue consuming venison. It’s a great source of protein. We just want them to do it as safely as possible,” she said.

To test the deer, wildlife health staff remove a set of lymph nodes from the deer’s neck, which is where the pathogen is localized.

“This year we’re preparing to test nearly 10,000 deer. The majority of those are hunter harvested. We will also test roadkill, targeted (sick) deer, and deer removed through sharpshooting,” said Straka.

Sharpshooting is an important tool when used in specific circumstances.  Several states have found a majority of their positive CWD cases through sharpshooters versus hunters.

“Sharpshooting is most beneficial in areas of recent infection, and on very local scale where positive cases have been found,” she said.  “But hunters are our best partners for disease surveillance.”

Recently in Montcalm County, one young man voluntarily brought in a deer that he shot during youth season. This deer tested positive for CWD – the first and only documented case in the county.

“Fortunately, we were able to catch it-thanks to him. We’re so appreciative to him and his family for helping us with our surveillance,” she said. “It’s an incredible achievement when you harvest a deer, especially for someone young. We want to keep it as positive of an experience as we can.”

When an animal is infected with CWD, it takes an average of 18 months for symptoms to appear. With the 10 positive cases in Michigan, nine of them still had perfect body conditions when they were brought into the lab. Only one of them looked sick.

“If you see pictures of this disease, you usually see a really skinny deer that is drooling a lot, standing with its legs splayed, its head down, and its ears down – looking miserable,” said Straka. “After the average year and a half, the deer typically dies within months. It’s a relatively rapid disease once they’re clinical.”

But even before these symptoms emerge, the deer are still infectious. It may leave hair, saliva, and feces behind that will infect other animals.

“We don’t know how long it can stay infectious in the environment. But we know it can last years – possibly decades. We’re dealing with a pathogen that’s really hard to get rid of,” she said.

To date, there have been no known human cases of CWD. Even so, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that people not consume CWD-infected deer as researchers continue to evaluate any potential health risk. The DNR encourages those in areas where CWD has been found to test harvested deer, even when testing isn’t mandatory.

Straka said that, unlike with TB, cooking the meat doesn’t get rid of this disease. CWD is caused by a deformed protein called a prion. Since it’s not caused by a virus or bacteria, the immune system of the deer doesn’t even realize it’s bad. 

Another way the DNR helps prevent the spread of disease is by banning feeding and baiting in areas where CWD or TB has been detected.

“If you put food on the ground, you’re congregating the deer together. Obviously, if you have direct contact and a contaminated environment, you’re creating a hotspot of disease,” she said.

Evidence in states like Wyoming show that if local agencies like the DNR just allowed CWD to run its course, it would cause population declines and, ultimately, localized extinction.

But, all in all, Straka said, “We’ve done a really good job so far using different management techniques and being really aggressive to make sure the disease doesn’t spread.”

Straka earned her bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife management at the University of Minnesota and worked as a field biologist for six years before returning to school to earn her master’s degree in public health and her doctorate in veterinarian medicine, specializing in interdisciplinary medicine.

“As hard as my job is, I feel like I can make a difference and that we really do have an impact on the health of animals overall.”

For more information, visit www.michigan.gov/emergingdiseases