When veterinary student Laura Donohue learned that Cortland Seafood had whole, fresh fish, she immediately ordered a few perch and went home to dissect them on her kitchen table. What resulted — perch organs, scales and tiny bones lined up in trash bags and plastic wrap — might have been a harrowing sight for anyone outside the veterinary profession, but it enlightened 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 a mission for another project: drawing illustrations for a new book on wildlife forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.
“I was asked to explain the general lesions in a disease of fish,” she says. “When I was drawing it, I realized that I didn’t really understand the connection between the spleen, liver and stomach. Can you see the liver at the same time with the spleen, at the same time with the stomach, or should I show it with the liver removed? I needed to look for myself.”
Donohue, DVM ’22, blends her artistic talents and passion for animals in her illustrations for “Wildlife Health and Disease in Conservation.” The book showcases more than 100 of her drawings, which depict the cycles of common wildlife diseases as well as their social, cultural, and economic impacts. Except for one art class as an undergraduate, Donohue is self-taught and has been drawing since childhood.
The book’s co-editors, David Jessup, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of California-Davis, and Robin RadcliffeDonohue, assistant professor of wildlife medicine and conservation at CVM, invited Donohue to join the project last year.
“When we found out that Laura had gone to the supermarket and had bought fish and explained them right there on her kitchen table, 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 canceled. 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 appropriate to her needs while breathing multicolored life into his new and modified Jessup collection.
“Arts and aesthetics can inspire people to care about and act on critical problems, which we certainly face with issues of single health and the environment,” Jessup says, referring to the concept that the health of wildlife, pets, humans, and the environment are inextricably linked.
Donohue’s art accompanies each of the 25 chapters that focus on diseases ranging from Ebola in the endangered mountain gorilla to bird malaria and the extinction of Hawaii’s forest birds.
Each chapter also touches on important non-biological factors of disease, including the social, financial, legal, and political factors at play. “Hopefully, if done well enough, along with the illustrations, the book will be useful to policy makers and stakeholders who may not have a strong biomedical education, and who can also influence how society deals with and sustains health and disease,” Jessup says. .
This is where Donohue comes in, Radcliffe adds. “She was able to capture the landscape of disease risk – all the elements that contribute to disease and that might affect conservation efforts. Perhaps for some it’s habitat loss or increased transport, for example. Laura helped articulate these ideas and gave the book a really rich visual element.”
case based learning
Many of Donohue’s illustrations show the disease cycles in action and the animal systems in each chapter.
“One of the things I love about Cornell is the way we learn using real-life situations,” Donohue said. “This was an extension of that. I am a very visual person, and the book was a mixture of science, art, and learning for me.”
One of my favorite chapters to work on was a chapter on waterfowl diseases by Jessup. “I worked with him to refresh the images, especially those related to food poisoning,” Donohue says. “We usually see outbreaks of botulism as a result of a flood, but there are other methods such as plowing or irrigation, which can kill invertebrates or small animals, which can reproduce spores.” Donohue’s illustration depicts duck behavior as an example, eating poison and dying in large numbers.
“Some of my favorite illustrations are the ones that show the organs in the body as the bird goes about its daily life,” Donoghue says. “I paint them as you might see them in nature. It’s a great way to learn the cycles of life.”
To achieve the desired artistic effects while staying scientifically accurate meant Donohue was in constant contact with the 45 chapter authors. After meeting via Zoom or by phone for a conversation about the author’s goals for the chapter, Donohue would sketch out ideas and send them with follow-up questions. I created a WordPress site specifically to track drafts and provide feedback on them.
“I had to make sure I was on the right track before I spent too much time on a sketch, as there was so much to do,” Donohue says. “Sometimes I’d share a diagram where one of the animals listed was just a box, and they trusted I’d make them more in depth as we went.”
“Laura was friendly, responsive, and welcome throughout the design process for my class,” says Andy Ramey, director of the Molecular Ecology Laboratory at the US Geological Science Center in Alaska. Ramy wrote a chapter called “Bird Flu in Wild Birds,” in which Donohue created three custom illustrations, including a cover photo highlighting research on bird flu in western Alaska.
Donohue also explained the generalized ecology of influenza A viruses in wild birds and indirect hosts, as well as some of the common signs and pests associated with highly pathogenic influenza A virus infection in wild birds. “It provided vivid and clear examples of what a person might notice in the field or clinic if they encountered a bird infected with this ecologically and economically important disease,” says Rami.
Jessup was particularly influenced by the drawings of sea otters and bighorn sheep. The big sheep designs in particular are helping to explain a bacterial pneumonia process that has eluded wildlife health professionals for nearly three decades. “It’s very useful,” Jessup says. “Many others show the impact of landscapes and the environment on wildlife diseases or health problems.”
“Laura even brings challenging concepts like the evolution of viruses to life by showing disease transmission over time as viruses travel across both species and geographic barriers,” Radcliffe says.
Possibility to influence around the world
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 and disease and conservation,” Jessup says.
Radcliffe expects that illustrations in particular will help cement the information in the minds of readers. “Many people who use this in other parts of the world may not be speaking English, so it could have a greater impact,” he says.
“I am proud to have worked on this book with the editors and authors,” Donohue says. “I feel like I’ve contributed to the learning that comes from it, not just for me but for those in the world who will use it when it’s 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 have come from Cornell; University of California, Davis; Wildlife Disease Society, USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services; International Wildlife Veterinary Services. American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians; Veterinarians Without Borders.
Melanie Grever Cordova is the assistant director of communications for the College of Veterinary Medicine.