New director committed to wildlife health

The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative's new director — Dr. Craig Stephen — is someone whose lifelong commitment to wildlife mirrors that of his new colleagues at the CWHC.

"The CWHC has this unique cohort of highly skilled, passionate people who care about wildlife, and I'm looking forward to becoming a part of this group," says Stephen, who began his new job on July 1.

Stephen's enthusiasm for wildlife dates back to his childhood. While growing up on the coast of B.C., he envisioned a career as a park ranger or wildlife researcher.

Plans changed when he took an injured snowy owl to the veterinarian and met Dr. David Huff. That chance meeting led to a job at the Huff Animal Clinic in Twassen, B.C., and sparked Stephen's interest in veterinary medicine. He went on to graduate from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in 1987 and began his veterinary career in a mixed practice on Vancouver Island.

But Stephen's interest in wild things and in population health eventually led him back to the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) where he completed a PhD in epidemiology that focused on emerging infectious diseases in salmon.

In a move that Stephen describes as "really good timing," he then applied for a position at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. Although the director was skeptical about hiring a veterinarian, Stephen's epidemiology training proved invaluable to the centre as infectious diseases such as hantavirus infection and Lyme disease began to appear.

Through his experiences with emerging infectious diseases, Stephen became aware that animal health, human health and environmental health were all treated as separate entities with nobody focused on pulling them together.

To meet that need, he established the Centre for Coastal Health (CCH) in 1996. "There's significant power to having a group that sits in the middle and tries to knit things together into a single comprehensive story," Stephen explains.

The CCH has done important work in various areas including aquaculture and its potential for causing environmental harm as well as projects involving wildlife and the implications of natural resource development.

The centre has also worked on international projects aimed at better preparing the world for emerging infectious disease. These projects required novel ways to gather information and dealt with several aspects of public health, agriculture health and wildlife in countries such as Sri Lanka and Nepal.

"They presented interesting challenges, and they gave me a deeper respect for cultural differences," recalls Stephen. "The funding agencies allowed us to solve the problems in a multi-disciplinary, collaborative fashion by developing teams that focused on integrating across the people, the animals and the environment with the goal of improving the health status – that was very rewarding."

As CCH director, Stephen also worked closely with the CWHC. In addition to delivering wildlife health programs and relaying regional wildlife information to the national organization, CCH employees also provided services such as risk assessments and policy reviews – services that used their strengths in epidemiology and population health.

Stephen is gratified that he was able to develop a group that was focused on making change and solving problems at national and international levels.

He's also proud of his work with undergraduate and graduate veterinary students at the University of Calgary where he was a professor for the past eight years. In addition, Stephen taught numerous students at other universities where he had clinical or adjunct appointments.

Stephen emphasizes the importance of preparing students for the role they can play in ensuring the health and sustainability of wildlife in a rapidly changing world.

"Society sees us as the guardians of animal welfare, and it's important that students have the perspective of connectivity to the world around them as we teach them to be health professionals of the 21st century," Stephen explains. "I always enjoy when I see the light go on and the students start to think about how they can change the world rather than just study the world."

As the CWHC's new leader, Stephen‘s first goal is sustainability. He plans to continue all the organization's important work in the face of challenging fiscal times in Canada and in the world.

He will also strive to strengthen the group's capability to share the knowledge they've gained through detection, diagnosis and analysis so that they can get the message out to the people who can make a difference, both in industry and government.

Stephen also hopes to increase the CWHC's role in tackling Canada's marine and aquatic issues. He envisions these issues becoming even more significant as oceans become the setting for more and more important conservation issues.

No stranger to the U of S, Stephen is optimistic about working on a campus which is focused on collaborating across disciplines through initiatives such as One Health. He looks forward to integrating the work of the CWHC with on-campus projects.

"The most important thing you can do to protect us all is to keep our wildlife healthy," points out Stephen. "The CWHC is dedicated to wildlife health and is very well positioned with a strong national and international profile that will allow us to take [researchers'] knowledge – their discoveries and diagnostics and investigations – and use that knowledge to encourage good public policy around wildlife."

Related story: Read "U of S grad to lead national wildlife centre" (WCVM Today, June 2014).
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