Animal detective solves zoo mysteries

By Christopher Schwarzen
Times Snohomish County bureau

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A Chinese goral, being treated for skin tumors on its legs, approaches keeper Sara Manetti at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.
 

The high-powered microscope sitting in the middle of the desk, the diplomas hung on the walls and the medical guides perched on bookshelves are clear giveaways that the living-room-turned-office belongs to a doctor.

It's not clear, however, when Michael Garner enters, dressed casually in a wildlife T-shirt and khaki hiking shorts, that he should be the one using the office.

But when Garner picks up a tissue-sample slide in one hand and begins to use words such as "necropsy," "amoebas," and "parvovirus," there's little doubt he's a veterinary pathologist.

For more than 10 years, Garner, 48, has dedicated his research — and life — to studying exotic animals and their diseases. His specialty is making the tough diagnoses that other veterinarians can't.

If someone studying South American mammals comes across a number of sick jaguars, it's likely that Garner is peering closely at a tissue sample, trying to discover what is making them ill. Or if a Western pond turtle dies at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Garner is searching for the cause of death.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Dr. Michael Garner, a veterinary pathologist, cradles Zydeco in the kitchen of a Monroe house that he has converted to offices. Zoos around the United States turn to Garner when they want to learn what caused the death of one of their exotic animals. He expects to handle 7,000 cases this year.

With more than 80 zoos and close to 200 clinics clamoring for his services, it's no wonder Garner has little room in a garage that accompanies his office. Inside are boxes of wet tissue samples in jars that number in the thousands.

In a basement of the old Monroe house on Main Street that he's turned into his medical office are file cabinets full of slides — one from every animal he's studied since 1994. Garner used to work from his own home in Snohomish, where he lives with his family, but he ran out of room.

Not only do animal experts come to Garner with their immediate questions, they also look to him to study trends in wildlife diseases around the world.

"He's on top of his field," said Dr. Roberto Aguilar, a senior veterinarian at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

Butterflies and elephants

Garner got his start as a veterinary student in 1978 at Washington State University, eventually earning a veterinary doctorate in 1987. But it was his time spent at the University of Florida, Gainesville, in the early 1990s that turned him on to exotic animals.

Garner took every opportunity the university's labs gave him to study wild animals from around the world — invertebrates such as scorpions and butterflies, as well as large mammals such as the rhinoceroses and elephants.

"Most residents didn't want anything to do with exotics because it was a lot of work," Garner said. "I was always out in the woods collecting animals as a kid that I gravitated toward it."

Garner set up shop in his home once he finished his residencies with the hope that he could make a living studying exotic animals. His reputation from school earned him his first phone calls with the difficult-to-answer question: What's causing the problem?

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Garner holds a slide containing a tissue sample from a zoo animal. He studies such slides for causes of death, looking for diseases that might spread if not detected in time.

Zoo veterinarians make the first attempt at such a question, but when they get stuck, they turn to the pathologist studying the inner workings of the world's diseases. The majority of the time, he works straight from slides, but occasionally he performs a necropsy, the animal equivalent of an autopsy. This year, he expects to handle 7,000 cases of one kind or another.

At Woodland Park Zoo, Garner's first client, veterinarians are quick to realize what they can or can't determine themselves.

"We can make our best assessment on things we see with our own eyes," said Dr. Darin Collins, Woodland Park Zoo's animal-health-department director. "But Dr. Garner takes it to the next level. He can determine what disease processes were occurring at the time of death, and we can use that information to make better decisions on how to care for the zoo animals."

Garner might find an infection related to mortality, or he might find that a death was caused primarily by old age, Collins said. If sent samples early enough, he might find a diagnosis that can save an animal. Garner charges between $24 and $400, depending on the service and length of his report.

Collins now has Garner working on a male goral, a Chinese goatlike animal, with skin tumors.

"If he can determine what kind of tumor, then I can determine what kind of treatment," Collins said.

For Garner, every case is different, but he's pleased to see animal studies branching out from what's become almost ordinary.

"You always get mammals, birds and reptiles," he said. "But now I'm beginning to do more fish and other 'lesser' animals that many people think pathology doesn't apply."

Garner would like to examine more butterflies and other invertebrates because, he said, they have yet to be studied pathologically in detail.

Building a following

Because Garner keeps information related to each subject he studies, he can establish disease patterns associated with particular animals. Scientists and veterinarians alike are beginning to rely on his trend assessments.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Garner works with slides of tissue samples sent to him by zoos and clinics in hopes he can determine how animals died in time to prevent the spread of infection or disease.

"Michael is able to detect problems and give us solutions if we're dealing with a population," Aguilar said. "He has a huge bank of current knowledge and of older cases."

Garner likes to look for connections among old cases. Like a detective looking for evidence of a crime, he searches his slides for proof of a disease.

"I try to keep at least five to six years' worth of studies," Garner said. "Either these animals are threatened or endangered, or they're high-profile."

The Monroe pathologist sees himself more as a conservationist than a veterinarian. By discovering and identifying new diseases, which he's done several times, the information can be used to help others working to protect animals in the wild.

Garner presents at professional conferences and publishes work in veterinary journals.

"The bigger picture [from Garner's work] comes at the end of the year when he's able to pull all of his information together and get it into the literature," Collins said. "He's providing information to the whole zoo community."

Anything contributing to the basic understanding of a wild species becomes useful in the conservation of that animal, Garner said.

"I didn't realize what it was all about, but it didn't take long to realize this," he said. "Conservation has now become one of the key elements of my job."

A global interest

Garner's focus has been on Latin America, where he says it's difficult for someone to afford veterinary school and pass U.S. certification tests. He already does clinical pathology for a number of zoos and research centers there.

To increase the number of Latin American veterinary pathologists who specialize in wild animals, he's begun a residency program that now is approved by the American College of Veterinary Pathologists (ACVP), which oversees certification of veterinary pathologists in the United States.

His first resident, Dr. Carles Juan-Sallés, worked with Garner for two years, studying in Mexico while working as a veterinary pathologist at the African Safari outside Puebla, Mexico.

The idea, Juan-Sallés wrote in an e-mail, was to complete the residency, become board-certified himself and then return to Mexico to train other veterinarians.

"The development and standardization of veterinary pathology in these and other countries is considerably delayed," Juan-Sallés said. "If we train Latin American pathologists, wildlife conservation in their countries will be positively impacted."

Aguilar, who helped persuade Garner to start the residency program, said the people being trained by Garner are needed to stop the illegal trade of exotic animals and to educate people about wildlife's importance in the world's ecology.

"Two to 3 million birds sold annually worldwide come from Brazil, and that's a huge impact," Aguilar said. "The folks he's training will really make a difference."

From the jungles of Brazil to his office in Monroe, Garner simply is interested in increasing veterinarians' field knowledge.

"Once in a while, there's a disease I can't identify," Garner said. "We're at a point in zoo-animal pathology that domestic species were at in the 1930s. So every day is something new. This job is never boring."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com