The fictional Ace Ventura may be tops when it comes to pet detectives, but the real animal gumshoes may be of the nonhuman sort — at least when it comes to environmental issues. More and more, we are recognizing the incredible powers of observation and deduction our fellow creatures possess, and we are using them to help us uncover the “bad guys” in our air, homes and workplaces.
Eight German airports are now employing honeybees to monitor air quality. Emissions from planes, as well as from automobile traffic near the terminals, can affect the cleanliness of the air, potentially harming the neighborhood residents and wildlife. The bees’ honey, it turns out, can be an early indicator of pollutants present in the environs. If the regularly tested honey is found to include heavy metals, for instance, countermeasures and emission laws can be ramped up to address the problem. So far, however, the German bees’ honey has not contained any contaminants or toxins, and it is pure enough to eat.
Animals are routinely used as West Nile virus detectors. An area can be sampled for the presence of the disease by examining blood samples drawn from a region’s birds, dogs or monkeys and by checking the brains of dead birds found by animal control agency representatives or members of the public.
And, just a few months ago in Salem, Massachusetts, dogs were used to sniff out bedbugs that had infiltrated 38 apartments in an elderly housing complex.
Of course, the classic example of nonhuman beings serving us as early-warning sentinels is the canary in the coal mine. Well into the 20th century in the United States and the United Kingdom, coal miners took the birds into the mines as biomonitors for toxic gases, including methane and carbon monoxide. Because canaries are highly sensitive, they would become ill before the miners showed any symptoms, providing the miners with a chance to escape or put on protective respirators.
One world, one health
Given the many ways that nonhuman fauna benefit us — even work for us — it may be time to include them in our health care efforts worldwide. The One Health Initiative proposes to do just that. According to its website, One Health is “a worldwide strategy for expanding interdisciplinary collaborations and communications in all aspects of health care for humans, animals and the environment.” It recognizes that disease events in nonhuman species may indicate human health risks, and it would like to see the species barriers that we now accept in the medical industry come crashing down, improving health for all living beings. One Health would diagnose and treat animal and human diseases together, and it supports cross-species disease surveillance that may aid in the early recognition of infectious diseases. The One Health Initiative encourages medical schools to teach their students about zoonotic diseases and about the importance of recognizing veterinarians as medical colleagues.
Some would argue, however, that such an initiative would overburden an already troubled medical system and that it would divert precious funds away from more pressing disease control and treatment in humans. They say that medical practitioners need to specialize in order to gain expertise in any one field, and that animals and humans are different enough that you can’t cross-apply medical techniques, particularly for pharmaceuticals.
Another problem is that in the United States, there are only 28 schools of veterinary medicine compared to about 125 medical schools. There just aren’t enough veterinary schools to partner with medical schools. And only a handful of universities have veterinary and medical schools located in the same city.
Since our fellow creatures use their innate knowledge and skills to help us make sure our environments stay as healthy and green as possible, should we reciprocate by including them in our efforts to improve health care?
With our concerns today about the impact of global climate change on infectious diseases in all species — and our worries concerning new bioweapons — perhaps holistically joining animal and human health would be the best detection “agency” we could hire for ourselves and our environment.
Feature photo: Several German airports are now employing honeybees to monitor air quality. ©John T. Andrews