Red Wolves May Help Understanding of Human Eye Disease

The red wolf reintroduction has generated knowledge that has facilitated many other predator conservation efforts through the publication of innovative techniques and basic science in the scientific literature.  Now it appears that the careful work with the red wolf may also help us better understand an array of eye diseases that may affect as many as 1.8 million people in the United States.

Dr. Freya Mowat, a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist and researcher who has recently joined the NCSU CVM faculty and the EMC is an expert on inherited diseases of the canid retina.  Dr. Brian Gilger, leader of the NCSU CVM ophthalmology service recognized immediately that Dr. Mowat was the obvious person for Dr. Suzanne Kennedy-Stoskopf to contact when students in the ZTAU Wild Carnivore Team reported that one of the wolves was showing signs of an eye problem.

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Dr. Mowat (left) examines the eyes of a red wolf restrained by Dr. Kennedy-Stoskopf (right)

A former large animal practitioner in England before taking on the challenge of PhD and residency training to study eye disease, Dr. Mowat did not hesitate joining in on the examination of the wolf on a cold and rainy day.  Her careful examination revealed the male wolf appeared to have a degenerative retinal condition that was first reported in the literature by former NCSU graduate student Dr. Anne Ballman (ne- Acton) in a review of red wolf pathology findings she published while a student at the University of Tennessee.   The condition has been mentioned briefly in 2 early red wolf recovery documents but work on the pathogenesis and genetic basis of the disease has been limited.  This is in part because the disease affects wolves later in their lives and has not been identified as affecting their productivity or success in the wild during their main reproductive years.

Dr. Mowat immediately recognized the potential value of better understandinig the red wolf condition as it relates to both diseases found in domestic dogs and those of humans.  She was quite eager to see additional wolves.  Which is how she found herself in sub-zero weather looking at the eyes of a dozen wolves being held at Alligator River just before the start of the semester.

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Wolf Biologist Becky Harrison (left) restrains a young red wolf while Dr. Kennedy-Stoskopf instructs Wild Carnivore Team students Haley Gunter (second from right) and Paige Harrelson (right) in the finer points of wolf phlebotomy.

Dr. Kennedy-Stoskopf and a team of 6 of the top students in the Wild Carnivore team were headed to Sandy Ridge in North Eastern North Carolina to conduct the annual physical examinations of the wolves in captivity both there and in Columbia, NC.  Dr. Mowat packed a portable ophthalmological examination kit that could work without electrical power and joined the team on two cold and blustery days of physical examinations.  It was a great opportunity for the students to work with some of the most experienced wolf biologists in the world and learn their techniques for catching and restraining the animals.  The students, Katie Cassady, Haley Gunter, Paige Harrelson, Hannah Gardner Marvin and Doug Margarucci also learned a few things about working animals in sub-zero temperatures.

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Expert wolf biologists Mike Morse and Ryan Nordsven show veterinary student Douglas Margarucci (center back) the finer points of hand restraint of an awake red wolf.  Hank the red wolf’s (center front) eyes have already been dilated for Dr. Mowatt’s examination.

Unbeknowst to the NCSU team, 2 of the wolves to be examined were the parents of the wolf Dr. Mowat had looked at earlier in December.  He was one of the pups in the famous pair’s only litter.  Known as Betty and Hank, the rather advanced age parents have lived near the visitor center in Columbia for many years and are well known to local residents and featured in many red wolf photos.  As it turned out, Hank, the father of the NCSU wolf has been having visual challenges of late and Dr. Mowat was able to document his retinal dysplasia.  Blood samples from all 12 wolves examined along with samples from the 7 wolves managed by the Wild Carnivore Team will put Dr. Mowat on an excellent track to better understand the genetics and the pathogenesis of the red wolf condition as a step towards evaluating the usefulness of an endangered species model of an important group of human diseases of the eye.

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Veterinary students Liz Hyde (left) and Katie Cassady (right) conduct a physical examination on an anesthetized young red wolf at Sandy Ridge.