The care of these animals is not subject to the same privacy and confidentiality regulations as are privately owned pets; moreover, public zoos and parks are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, wherein interested parties may demand to inspect documents related to the care of animals at a given facility. However, this relative openness is not limitless. Zoos are understandably sensitive to disclosures, which may affect their business adversely if the public were to avoid the zoo for fear that visits to the zoo are unsafe. Zoos also bear the brunt of frequent legal assaults and harassment by animal rights advocates; as a result, zoo administrators have tried to restrict the flow of information to outside parties.
The vast majority of large- and medium-sized zoos and animal parks participate in using the International Species Identification System (ISIS), which is a standardized way of classifying and inventorying animal collections in zoos, parks, and aquariums. ISIS members include more than 450 such facilities, half of which are within the United States. ISIS developed a DOS-based program for animal cataloguing and inventory management called ARKS, which has an EVR extension called MedArks. Currently about 90% of ISIS member facilities use MedArks as their EVR, and in contrast to the situation often encountered in POC-equipped human medical facilities, the zoo or park will use MedArks to record the care of its entire animal population. MedArks is designed around a DOS-based, SQL-compliant Foxpro database. MedArks is designed to allow one institutional veterinary center to transmit its records to any other MedArks-equipped facility, as well as the ISIS central database, by e-mail or by mailing a diskette containing the desired files. Currently, ISIS members send sets of records to the ISIS central database on a monthly basis; this infrequent schedule is a result of manpower limitations and could be made arbitrarily frequent. Of course, these same transmissions could also be received by other agencies involved in biosurveillance, if appropriate arrangements were made.
A few zoos, such as the San Diego Zoo and the Denver Zoo, use other software for their EVRs. It is important to note, however, that nearly 100% of medium- to large-sized institutions use EVRs of one type or another. The distribution of institutions in most metropolitan areas of the United States (as well as many areas of the world), their lower privacy and confidentiality barriers, and their commonality of EVRs combine to offer a unique opportunity to develop an early warning sentinel system.
Use of sentinel species to monitor biological threats to both humans and the sentinel species offers possibilities not available within human medicine. Farms located near large cities also have the potential to provide sentinel service. For example, a herd of immunologically naïve pigs is kept at the top of Cape York in Queensland as a detector for Japanese encephalitis incursion from the Torres Straight in Australia. They are bled regularly for seroconversion (Australian Government Department of Agriculture et al., 2003; Animal Health Australia, 2004).
ISIS recognizes that the potential represented by the widespread usage of MedArks is threatened by the age of its soft-ware.There is currently no modern,Web-based, or client-server version of MedArks available to replace existing implementations, and some institutions have threatened to purchase or develop customized systems, potentially complicating compatibility across ISIS members. The National Aquarium in Baltimore and the New England Aquarium made attempts to reengineer MedArks for the Web.
ISIS is currently designing the Web-based Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS).The ZIMS project will overhaul ISIS member zoos' biological inventory systems and integrate them with an EVR. When brought on-line, ZIMS will serve 640 zoos in 71 countries, including 250 zoos in the United States (International Species Information System, 2005; J.A.Teare, personal communication, 2005). The detection spectrum of a sentinel network based on zoo monitoring, if constructed, is an interesting question. For aerosol releases of biological agents, some animal species will be more susceptible than are humans and, therefore, sicken and die early. These animals are closely watched, so if a disease is spreading through the animal population more quickly or in advance of spread through the human population, as in the case of West Nile encephalitis, the outbreak may be noticed first by surveillance of zoo-based animals. One last and unexpected role for institutional veterinarians is illustrated by the West Nile outbreak. Zoos employ keepers who inspect the grounds of their institutions and collect dead animals for examination, whether or not they originate from the institution's collection. In such cases, the institutional veterinarian will often perform a necropsy, especially when there are signs of an unusual or unexpected illness.
It was a zoo veterinarian, not a physician or public health service officer, who uncovered an epidemic of WNV in 1999 in New York, based on necropsy findings of dead birds found on zoo property.
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