Damien Joly, CEO of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC).
Dr. Damien Joly is the CEO of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC). Provided photo.

Wildlife leader emphasizes collaboration with WCVM

Amid a growing need for wildlife health research and surveillance in Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) wants the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) community to know that relationship building is more important than ever.

It’s critical for the CWHC to work with the WCVM and all Canadian veterinary colleges to address wildlife health issues such as avian influenza and other diseases that have a significant impact on both animal and human populations across the country, says Dr. Damien Joly, chief executive officer of the CWHC.

“It’s becoming more and more important that we need to have a solid handle on wildlife health in Canada,” he says.  

Founded as a centre in 1992 by WCVM veterinary pathologists Drs. Ted Leighton and Gary Wobeser, the CWHC is a collaboration of Canada’s five veterinary schools and the Province of British Columbia’s Animal Health Centre. The CWHC works with a network of federal, provincial and territorial agencies to collect vital data from wildlife populations across Canada and uses the information to track diseases and health issues affecting wildlife species.

“For over 30 years we’ve been collecting data, figuring out how animals die and essentially establishing a baseline understanding of wildlife health in Canada,” Joly says.

The CWHC operates offices in each of Canada’s five veterinary schools as well as the B.C. Animal Health Centre, with its national headquarters and western/northern office based at the WCVM. The six centres provide access to veterinary diagnostic laboratories where CWHC team members and their collaborators can identify wildlife health issues and ensure that their results help organizations and individuals make decisions on wildlife management, public health and agriculture.

Before joining the CWHC, Joly studied and worked in wildlife epidemiology. After earning his undergraduate degree in wildlife biology, he received his PhD degree in biology from the University of Saskatchewan in 2001, in which his research focused on the epidemiology of tuberculosis and brucellosis in wood bison. His extensive résumé includes working in leadership positions for organizations such as the Government of British Columbia, Wildlife Conservation Society and Metabiota Inc., a private corporation dedicated to zoonotic disease surveillance and pandemic preparedness.

“What I bring [to the CWHC] is an understanding of how to work with scientists and how to clear a path so that they could do good work,” Joly says, who oversees the CWHC’s nationwide projects from his home in Nanaimo, B.C. 

The wildlife health cooperative’s work is more important than ever because monitoring wildlife species can help improve the health of all animals. It also has a major impact on human health — given that numerous diseases in wildlife are zoonotic (can be spread to humans).

“Really understanding One Health (the intersection between human, animal and environmental health) couldn’t be more important. And that’s really our role, to bring that wildlife side of One Health to the table,” says Joly.

One of the most recent examples of a zoonotic disease with global impact was SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, which originated in wildlife species. Joly says Canadians can expect to see more zoonotic diseases that will affect animal and human health. These diseases can also have a major impact on the country’s agriculture industry that provides Canada’s food supply.

“We’ve just had COVID, we’re being hit by avian influenza, and African swine fever is another one. Everybody’s really concerned, and it’s becoming more important that we have a solid handle on wildlife health in Canada.”

The WCVM houses one of the six diagnostic labs that the CWHC uses to diagnose wildlife diseases.

“If an animal anywhere in Canada gets reported as being found dead or sick, they most often show up at one of our labs,” Joly says. 

Dr. Trent Bollinger (DVM, DVSc), a WCVM wildlife pathology professor, serves as the director for the CWHC’s Western/Northern region. He oversees wildlife specimens that come into the lab for diagnostic tests from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the northern territories. Other WCVM faculty members are significant collaborators on this work, including parasitologist Dr. Emily Jenkins (DVM, PhD) who helps analyze parasitic diseases in wildlife animals. 

On Dec. 5, Joly will be at the WCVM to give a presentation about the CWHC and the organization’s activities. During his visit, he’s also hoping to foster more collaborative relationships with the WCVM community.  

“The folks who come to this talk should really expect to hear some cool stuff about what we do and how we could all work together,” Joly says. “Gone are the days where people can sit in the lab and do work on their own and expect to have lasting impact in their field. We have to collaborate — we have to work together to try to really start that relationship to try to create an opportunity for us to work together even closer.

“It really is collaboration that moves the needle.”

Dr. Damien Joly will give a talk at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 5, in Room 2115 at the WCVM. Click here for more details.  

Cat Zens of North Battleford, Sask., is a fourth-year student in the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. She is working as a research communications intern at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in 2023.