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What can a medical student learn at the zoo?
Michael Valente, MD’21, and Zoo Miami Associate Veterinarian Dr. Gabriella Flacke examine Ziggy, a juvenile giant anteater.

What can a medical student learn at the zoo?

Michael Valente recounts his experience on a unique clinical rotation

June 18, 2021 at 11:30am

Michael Valente graduated from the FIU Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine (HWCOM) in April. Next month, Dr. Valente starts his residency training in pediatrics at Nemours Children's Hospital in Orlando. Here, he shares his experiences during a recent pilot clinical rotation at Zoo Miami. And he explains why understanding animal health is important to human health. The zoo clerkship has since become an approved elective at HWCOM.

On the first day of my last medical school rotation, we got a call that a patient was en route to the hospital. The patient, who was just a few months old, had fallen and appeared unable to put weight on her left leg. After a quick physical exam, we proceeded to take X-rays. While looking at the films, I was struck by how translucent the bones in our patient's leg appeared. Surely, she must have some metabolic disease resulting in poorly developed bone tissue. "Nope, birds have air in their bones to help them fly,” Dr. Marisa Bezjian, associate zoo veterinarian, informed me. Our patient, a flamingo that calls Zoo Miami home, was a drastic departure from every other patient I had seen in my four years of medical school at FIU.

Over the next four weeks, I had the privilege to learn from the world-class Animal Health team at Zoo Miami, not just about the differences between the anatomy, physiology and diseases of animals and humans, but more importantly, the similarities and relationships between the two and areas for future collaboration. The approach is known as One Health and recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to that of animals and the shared environment. 

I have always been passionate about conservation and zoology, so when in 2019 I first read about One Health, it instantly captured me. I began learning everything I could about this initiatives that examines the intersections between animal, human and ecological health.

When I reached out to Zoo Miami about setting up a pilot medical school rotation, my idea met with immediate enthusiasm. Dr. Gwen Myers, the zoo's chief of Animal Health, embraced the idea of setting up a clerkship that would bring medical students to the zoo to learn through experience, reading and discussion about the animal health field.

During my rotation, I assisted in surgeries on a flamingo, owl and lizards; physicals on a Florida panther, an otter, and an anaconda; and a multitude of other procedures and exams involving many other animals at Zoo Miami. 

As a future pediatrician, I found a highlight in participating in assessments of a juvenile giant anteater named Ziggy, born prematurely. The team monitored his growth milestones in much the same way pediatricians follow the growth of human babies. Beyond such practical experiences, the readings and discussions with the Animal Health team challenged me to think about One Health topicszoonotic disease, climate change and ecological food chainsand identify areas for collaboration between our fields.

As society and economies become increasingly globalized, we continue to face the perils of climate change and novel diseases with pandemic potential. Zoonotic diseases are caused by pathogens that spread between animals and people and are very common. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.” The interface between humans, animals, and the environment is becoming more complex; we will need a One Health approach to all of these experiences.

I hope that this relationship between the FIU Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and Zoo Miami encourages future physicians to think about One Health and incorporate it into their practice. It was an honor and privilege to work with the team at Zoo Miami to develop and pilot this revolutionary rotation. I'm really excited for the impact it will have on future medical students at FIU.