Student illustrations bring wildlife book to life

When veterinary student Laura Donohue heard that Cortland Seafood had fresh, whole fish available, she quickly claimed some perch and returned home to dissect them at the kitchen table. What resulted — tiny perch organs, scales and bones arranged in garbage bags and plastic wrap — could have been a spooky scene to anyone outside of the veterinary profession, but it was illuminating for Donohue. She wanted to see for herself where the fish’s spleen was located in relation to her stomach.

The College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) provides its veterinary students with comprehensive anatomy classes, but Donohue was on a mission for another project: drawing illustrations for a new wildlife book to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“I was asked to illustrate general lesions in a fish disease,” she says. “While she was drawing it, I realized that she didn’t really understand the relationship between the spleen, liver, and stomach. Can you see a liver at the same time as the spleen, at the same time as the stomach, or do I have to show it without the liver? I needed to find myself.”

Donohue, DVM ’22, is combining his artistic talents and passion for animals in illustrations for “Wildlife Health and Disease in Conservation.” The book features more than 100 of his drawings, depicting common disease cycles in wildlife, as well as their social, cultural, and economic influences. Except for one art class as a college student, Donohue is self-taught and has been drawing since childhood.

An illustration by Laura Donohue, DVM ’22, shows how waterfowl share a diverse habitat with many species.

The book’s co-editors, David Jessup, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of California-Davis, and radcliffe robinassociate professor of practice in wildlife and conservation medicine at CVM, invited Donohue to join the project last year.

“When we found out that Laura went to the supermarket, bought fish, and dissected it right there at her kitchen table, we knew we had hired the right person for the job,” says Radcliffe.

Donohue had originally planned to participate 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 around the world as planned, Radcliffe saw a unique opportunity to simultaneously provide her with a learning opportunity tailored to her needs while breathing multicolored life into the new collection edited by him and Jessup.

“Art and aesthetics can inspire people to care and act on serious issues, which we certainly face with regard to One Health and environmental issues,” says Jessup, referring to the concept that the health of wildlife, animals Households, humans and the environment are inextricably linked.

Donohue’s art accompanies each of the 25 chapters, which focus on diseases ranging from Ebola in endangered mountain gorillas to avian malaria and the extinction of Hawaiian forest birds.

Each chapter also addresses nonbiological factors important to disease, including the social, financial, legal, and political factors at play. “We hope this is done well enough that, along with the illustrations, the book will be useful to policymakers and stakeholders who may not have a strong biomedical education and who may also influence how how society treats health, disease and conservation,” says Jessup. .

That’s where Donohue comes in, adds Radcliffe. “She has been able to capture the disease risk landscape: all the elements that contribute to a disease and could affect conservation efforts. Maybe for some it’s habitat loss or increased transportation, for example. Laura helped illustrate these ideas and gave the book a very rich visual element.

Case-based learning

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

“One of the things I love about Cornell is the way they teach us using real life cases,” Donohue said. “This was an extension of that. I am a very visual person and the book was a combination of science, art and learning for me”.

Among his favorite chapters to work on was one on waterfowl diseases, written by Jessup. “I worked with him to refresh the images, particularly those related to botulism,” Donohue says. “Commonly we see a botulism outbreak as a result of flooding, but other ways are tillage or irrigation, which can kill invertebrates or small animals, which can spread the spores.” Donohue’s illustration shows the behavior of ducks as an example, ingesting the toxin and dying in large numbers.

“Some of my favorite illustrations are the ones that show the organs of 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 fascinating way to learn about life cycles.”

Achieving the desired artistic effects while remaining scientifically accurate meant that Donohue was in constant communication with the authors of all 45 chapters. After meeting via Zoom or by phone to discuss an author’s goals for the chapter, Donohue would sketch out ideas and send them off with follow-up questions. He created a WordPress site specifically to track and provide feedback on drafts.

“I had to make sure I was on the right track before spending too much time on a sketch, as there was so much to do,” says Donohue. “Sometimes I would share a sketch where one of the animals included was just a box, and they were confident that I would deepen them as we went along.”

“Laura was approachable, responsive, and appreciative of her input throughout the design process for my chapter,” says Andy Ramey, director of the Molecular Ecology Laboratory at the US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center. Ramey wrote the chapter. “Avian Influenza in Wild Birds,” for which Donohue created three custom illustrations, including a cover image highlighting avian influenza research in western Alaska.

Donohue also illustrated the general ecology of influenza A viruses in wild birds and secondary hosts, as well as some of the common signs and lesions associated with highly pathogenic influenza A virus infection in wild birds. “It provided clear, vivid examples of what a person might observe in the field or in the clinic if they encountered a bird infected with this important ecological and economic disease,” Ramey says.

Jessup was particularly impressed by the illustrations of sea otters and bighorn sheep. “The bighorn sheep patterns in particular help explain a bacterial pneumonia process that has eluded the understanding of wildlife health specialists for nearly three decades. It is immensely useful,” says Jessup. “Many others show the influence of landscape and environment on wildlife diseases or health problems.”

“Laura even brought challenging concepts like the evolution of viruses to life by showing the transition of disease over time as viruses move between species and geographic barriers,” says Radcliffe.

Global Impact Potential

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

Radcliffe hopes that the illustrations in particular help cement the information in readers’ minds. “Many of the people using this in other parts of the world may not speak English, so it can have an even bigger impact,” he says.

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

“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; the University of California, Davis; the Wildlife Disease Association, USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services; International Wildlife Veterinary Services; the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians; and Veterinarians Without Borders.

Melanie Greaver Cordova is assistant director of communications at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

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