Leighton's legacy is strong CWHC

When Dr. Frederick A. (Ted) Leighton stepped down from his role as executive director of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) on July 1, he left behind a vital, successful organization that's the envy of other countries.

By Lynne Gunville

Since its creation in 1992, the CWHC (formerly known as the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre) has influenced social decision making and best practices for Canadian society by providing wildlife disease surveillance along with other vital wildlife health services.

Leighton is especially pleased with the role that he played in establishing the organization which applies the veterinary medical sciences to wildlife conservation and management in Canada through the collaboration of Canada's five veterinary colleges.

"I don't consider it to be my personal creation," says Leighton. "It's the creation of all the people in the CWHC, and my role has been that of a successful manager who sees the strengths of the people within a collaboration and finds ways of letting those strengths be expressed."

Leighton's insight into the strengths and potential of others has been a constant throughout his distinguished career in veterinary medicine. His accomplishments have been driven by an interest in zoology combined with an inherent ability to see the big picture while creating and fostering relationships with other like-minded individuals.

While growing up in rural New York and Nova Scotia, Leighton became fascinated with zoology — but his interest in veterinary pathology began as a 15-year-old when he helped to perform an autopsy on a 1,200-pound leatherback sea turtle. Years later he assisted Dr. Gary Wobeser, a veterinary pathologist at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), with the autopsy of a bald eagle.

The latter experience convinced him that veterinary pathology was the career for him.

"I was hooked on the notion that it was possible to use the tools of veterinary medicine and veterinary pathology to find out why wild animals died and to understand more about health and disease in wildlife as a scientific enterprise," recalls Leighton, who graduated from the WCVM in 1979.

After completing a PhD at Cornell University, Leighton was hired as an associate professor of veterinary pathology at the WCVM. It was a chance to work with Wobeser again, particularly in the area of wildlife diagnostic services.

Inspired by the American National Wildlife Health Centre system, Leighton and Wobeser laid out a concept for a veterinary college-based, Canada-wide program of wildlife disease surveillance that would be affordable to Canada and serve all sectors of society. Several years later, their vision became a reality when the wildlife health co-operative was established in 1992 with Leighton and Wobeser serving as co-directors.

"By being fully collaborative, we managed to find a Canadian way on a Canadian budget to have a world-class program," says Leighton, "and it was all based on co-operation rather than on competition."

With the emergence of West Nile virus in 1999 and chronic wasting disease in wildlife in 2000, the CWHC developed additional partnerships with Canada's agriculture and public health agencies. It was a clear demonstration of the valuable contributions that veterinary colleges and veterinary medicine had to offer, not only to wildlife health and conservation but also to human and domestic animal health.

By 2002, the organization had grown to a point at which a full-time executive director was required, and Leighton assumed that role.

The CWHC is well known for providing wildlife health surveillance as well as making academic contributions through graduate students, research and teaching.

"We provide health services, but at the same time we train the next generation of wildlife health expertise," says Leighton. "And we maintain a high level of scientific credibility because we continue to produce research and support graduate students who ask tough new questions and demand high scientific standards."

Designation of the CWHC by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) as a Collaborating Centre was an important personal milestone for Leighton who has travelled throughout the world facilitating training workshops on wildlife health issues for the OIE. The intelligence, motivation and optimism of international colleagues — even from desperately poor countries — has inspired him to try and meet their high standard of commitment to wildlife and to the public good.

Through the CWHC's international work, Leighton and his co-workers have learned much about the complications and challenges of working across differing cultures, philosophies and perspectives. "It's a great privilege to participate in and observe international negotiation, compromise and diplomacy at this level."

The CWHC's role on the world stage has also provided valuable international experience for its graduate students who have been involved in the training workshops.

"It's these graduate students who will really apply this experience in Canada and in other countries," he says. "I think we're serving Canada in a terrifically important way by engaging staff and students in an authentic international experience."

Leighton will spend the next year working with the CWHC's new director, Dr. Craig Stephen, and helping with transition. He will also finish some longstanding research projects and pursue some new intellectual activities.

He and his wife Anna have a daughter, Margaret, who's finishing a PhD at the Toulouse School of Economics in France. They also have a son, Patrick, who is a biologist and a newly-appointed professor of epidemiology at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Montreal.

"So, the whole family is on the cusp of something pretty new," says Leighton who is looking forward to watching the CWHC's future developments.

"It's the perfect time for a new person to come in and take over. The CWHC is on a good footing, and I'm the only one who's stepping down. Everyone else is still in place, the ship is under full sail and they'll manage perfectly well without their current captain."