Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
July 17, 1998

College of Veterinary Medicine

Expertise extends to the exotic

by Phyllis Peters, College of Veterinary Medicine

Veterinarians from premier zoos throughout the country know that the elephants under their care represent a huge financial investment. The health of these animals is important, which is why those veterinarians turn to the College of Veterinary Medicine, where the largest volume of in vitro diagnostic work is performed to test for tuberculosis (TB) in elephants.

Serum or tissue samples are taken from elephants at a variety of zoos, including the National Zoo of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and zoos in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as from privately owned elephant collections. The samples are sent twice a year to the ISU veterinary medical college, known for having the first, and the best, diagnostic procedures to test elephants for TB.

ISU's reputation among elephant owners can be credited to Charles Thoen, professor and interim chair of the department of veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine, who developed the TB testing procedure. Since publishing that process in 1981, Thoen has continued to improve it so clients get the highest level of specificity and sensitivity.

Thoen keeps detailed patient records on each elephant tested. TB often is transmitted to elephants from people who are infected, and can be transmitted from elephants to humans if the animal is shedding the organism in secretions. The ELISA test used by Thoen is particularly useful in detecting elephants with advanced contagious diseases. With 17 years of experience conducting the elephant TB tests, Thoen has developed good guidelines to better understand the significance of subtle lab findings.

During this time, he also has established relationships with veterinarians practicing in zoos and at various exotic and wildlife animal refuges. Students in the College of Veterinary Medicine have benefited from those contacts, as Thoen has recommended them for summer jobs, internships and other on-the-job experiences.

"We don't need to see ourselves as limited to a land-locked, livestock-intensive state. If our students want to explore an interest with wildlife or exotic animals, we can help connect them with opportunities to explore those various facets of veterinary medicine," Thoen said. "With their Iowa State education, our students offer solid skills and quickly earn the respect of professionals from all areas of veterinary medicine."

Thoen developed a course on infectious diseases in captive wild animals. Much of the instruction involves field trips and lectures provided by zoo veterinarians.

One of Thoen's students, Jeb Mortimer, is spending this summer working at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Another, Julie Napier, spent last summer conducting environmental studies at the new animal park being developed at DisneyWorld in Florida. Her research results now are being prepared for publication.

Iowa State homepage

Inside Iowa State,, University Relations
Copyright © 1998, Iowa State University, all rights reserved
Revised 7/16/98