June 1, 2014 at 5:54 pm

To Michigan's animal pathologist, solving wildlife deaths is 'a fun job'

Tom Cooley, state Department of Natural Resources pathologist, performs a necropsy on a swan. 'This bird hit something,' Cooley says. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

East Lansing— As the son of a wildlife biologist growing up in Bath, just outside Lansing, Tom Cooley knew from an early age he wanted to work with animals.

But while most wildlife enthusiasts would prefer to handle living animals, Cooley has spent the past 35 years up to his elbows in the carcasses of dead deer, waterfowl or other creatures that have met their demise from unknown circumstances. As the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ animal pathologist, Cooley’s job is to solve the mysteries of wildlife death.

“It’s an unpredictable job,” said Cooley. “It’s a fun job.”

The animals that end up in Cooley’s necropsy lab at Michigan State University come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Wildlife Services and the public. Sometimes, the cause of death is obvious. For example, an animal found on the side of the road with broken bones and bruises would likely have been hit by a car.

Other times, the answer is not as straightforward.

“You never know what you’re getting into,” said Julie Melotti, Cooley’s lab technician of seven years. “But sometimes you assume something is roadkill and it turns out to be something completely different.”

Cooley and his staff of two veterinarians, two lab scientists and two technicians are responsible for investigating and reporting trends in animal health throughout the state. Their role is to predict the next epidemic and make suggestions for preventing it, if possible.

“Wildlife health and human health, you can’t separate them. They are intertwined,” Cooley said. “The way people can travel and animals can travel, you can have a disease on the other side of the world and all of a sudden you find it in Michigan.”

On Friday, Cooley was investigating multiple trumpeter swan deaths near Grass Lake. One 26-pound bird was laid out on a steel table, thawed after days of being stored in a freezer to preserve the flesh and internal organs.

Cooley began the examination by taking an X-ray with a fluoroscope to see if the bird had been shot or had broken bones. Then he did an external examination from bill to foot, spreading the wings to look for marks and checking the feathers for signs of trauma.

A few moments later, wielding a sharp scalpel and bone cutters, Cooley skinned and sliced open the swan and began pulling out internal organs one by one for further examination.

Upon finding singe marks on the bird’s wings and blood clots filling up its abdomen, he pronounced the cause of death: trauma and electrocution.

“This bird hit something,” Cooley told Melotti. “You wonder if it was electrical lines.”

Cooley’s lab will take in any kind of animal, assuming there is some value to performing a necropsy.

“For some people, knowing how the house sparrow in their backyard died can be critical to them,” he said. “Other people, they say, it’s just a house sparrow, it’s no big deal.”

When Michigan’s white-tailed deer population began dying off in 2012, Cooley had more than 100 infected deer come through his lab.

The DNR identified the culprit as epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a virus transmitted from deer to deer by midges, gnats and mosquitoes, and estimated it had killed 15,000 deer in the state.

This year, Cooley has seen many eagles that have died of poisoning, possibly from eating rodents that had ingested rat poison set out by humans.

Once Cooley opened up a cormorant, a waterfowl, only to find it had asphyxiated on at least 20 of the rubber worms fishermen use as bait.

Cooley got his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, earned his master’s degree from Colorado State University and got involved in studies of bighorn sheep dying from lungworm.

After getting his master’s, he couldn’t find a job, so he came back to MSU in the late 1970s to work in the lab where he had spent time as an undergraduate. The gig paid $4.25 an hour at first, but it got him in the door.

“It wasn’t so bad,” he said. “It allowed me to do what I wanted to do.”

More than three decades later, Cooley, 62, says he has no desire to retire. He has MSU veterinary science students who rotate in and out of the lab regularly, although most are not looking for a career doing animal autopsies.

The job is suited to someone with an “inquisitive mind” who can “think outside the box,” Cooley said. A strong stomach is also a must. For his part, Cooley says the blood and unpleasant smells have never bothered him, although visiting students occasionally have a hard time.

“When the vet students come in, I tell them, if it bothers you, don’t get too close,” he said. “That floor is cement. It’s pretty unforgiving.”

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