Wildlife pathologist Dr Lydia Tong gets to the heart of the matter

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 Dr Lydia Tong
Dr Lydia Tong Photography: Arunas Klupsas

Wildlife pathologist Dr Lydia Tong is on the frontline of Australia’s fight against the illegal trafficking of animals. With new technology she’s helped develop, she’s about to take on the world. John Burfitt reports

There’s a look that crosses the faces of most people when Dr Lydia Tong tells them she’s a vet. Then there’s a second look that almost immediately follows, when she adds she works in pathology and deals with dead animals.

“I see it all the time,” she says with a laugh. “They initially respond with how lucky I am to work with animals all day, but when I add in the part about dead animals, they go silent, the look changes and they just stare at me!

“I do understand their reactions, though, as what I am doing today is not what I ever thought I would end up doing when I first signed up for vet school.”

What Dr Tong, 35, has ended up doing is a job few in Australia do. She’s a wildlife pathologist at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, a position she’s held for five years, and is responsible for conducting diagnostic surgical pathology and necropsy of animals in Taronga’s care. She estimates she conducts 1200 post-mortems a year.

One of the specifics of Dr Tong’s role is regularly performing forensic necropsies of animals or animal remains suspected to be victims of, or involved in, criminal acts.  

That’s in addition to her work on a range of exotic and native species and providing consulting services for other zoos, wildlife sanctuaries and animal welfare agencies, with a special focus on the illegal trade of wildlife animals. 

The need to act

Dr Tong is actively involved with two groups—WildENFORCE, which is developing new technologies for identifying the illegal trafficking of animals, and Lucy’s Project, which explores the link between domestic violence and violence in the home against animals.

“I know I put a lot on the plate, but I am driven by a need to do something about the issues I am constantly surrounded by,” she says. “Sometimes when you stop to think about all the suffering going on, it is overwhelming, but I also think it would be wrong for me not to do whatever I can to change what I see.”

Dr Lydia Tong
As wildlife pathologist at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, Dr Lydia Tong spends a lot of time looking down a microscope—performing postmortems on dead animals and conducting chemical analyses to identify illegally traded animals. Knowing her work is “constructive” gets her through.

The illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion-dollar global industry and poses a huge threat to many endangered Australian species. A single black cockatoo, the most laundered of all animals from Australia, can fetch around $30,000, while the blue-tongue lizard is another high on the list of trafficked animals. 

Dr Tong is part of the Taronga Zoo team that formed a taskforce to create technology to identify whether exported native fauna was wild-caught or legitimately captive-bred. She joined forces with zoo colleagues Dr Phoebe Meagher and Michelle Shaw, along with UNSW forensic biologist Dr Kate Brandis and Dr Debashish Mazumder from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, to collaborate on the WildENFORCE project.

Illegal trade

The team has developed two complementary techniques: stable isotope analysis and X-ray nuclear fluorescence. These processes identify permanent chemical signatures stored in keratin—the structural protein in feathers, quills and fur—and can differentiate between captive-bred animals fed an artificial diet, and animals foraging in the wild. 

The theory was tested on the highly illegally traded short-beaked echidna. By examining chemical signatures in echidna quills, the WildENFORCE team was able to establish a clear difference between captive-bred and wild-caught echidnas, that proved to be correct in 99 per cent of cases. 

They published a proof of concept paper about 18 months ago and their work has attracted the attention of the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) team. They are now looking at how these techniques can be utilised to determine cases taken from anywhere in the world, but especially in places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia which are major hotspots for the illegal wildlife trade.

The WildENFORCE team has now put new focus on the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal, the pangolin (a scaly anteater), as well as shingleback lizards. “What this does is put Australia at the forefront of wildlife crime forensics, and while this is a major advance, with the number of animals being illegally traded, it’s needed,” she says. 

“We can tell quickly if the animal was grown in captivity or was stolen from the wild. Our goals are the establishment of a keratin reference library, development of validated tests that can run off hand-held devices and then be used in enforcement. 

“We intend taking samples from animals at key bottlenecks and collection points, which will be sent to our facilities. The tests are cheap—about $10—as well as quick and considerably more effective than testing DNA. Best of all, this interrupts the process and makes illegal trafficking significantly more difficult for the people responsible.”

Absolute focus

Closer to home is her work with Lucy’s Project, a Lismore-based initiative started by Anna Ludvik which raises awareness about the link between human domestic violence and violence against family pets. 

Sometimes when you stop to think about all the suffering going on, it is overwhelming, but I also think it would be wrong for me not to do whatever I can to change what I see.

Dr Lydia Tong, veterinary pathologist

Dr Tong undertook her own wideranging study of the issue, involving over 1100 respondents. This detailed how abuse within the home extended to family pets in a tragic range of ways.

There are a number of disturbing statistics including that 53 per cent of women who experience domestic violence report the deliberate injury or killing of their companion animal, and that 88 per cent of families receiving services for child abuse have a pet that’s also been abused. 

“Domestic violence has greatly increased in recent years, and that is bad enough, but it constantly astounds me how many people are also abusive to vulnerable animals within their homes,” she says. 

She is currently completing a new report based on this research and hopes to have it published within the coming months. “It is like this dirty laundry that needs to be out there,” she adds.

For Dr Tong, this absolute focus on animals in need begins at home, with a blind cat Claude and one-eyed dog Scarlett keeping her company. It also goes some of the way to explaining why in her workplace, she has a coffee cup bearing the motto ‘Dead animals need love too’.

With such dedication, it’s little wonder Dr Tong was honoured with the first RSPCA Australia Hugh Wirth Future Leader in Animal Welfare Award in 2016.

Dr Lydia Tong

“That kind of pressure to do something to change the way things are comes from within,” she admits. “There is a deep emotional connection to this kind of work.”

The turning point

Born in New Zealand, Dr Tong’s family first moved to Singapore where at the age of 12 she decided she wanted to be a vet. “I volunteered as a kennel hand and I just always connected with those shelter animals,” she recalls.

Her family next moved to the UK, where Dr Tong completed school and then her veterinary studies at the University of Cambridge. One of her first placements was working in pathology at London Zoo, and an early research project was diagnosing fractures in dogs that had been caused by abuse. 

“At that time, there was no research like that anywhere, and that is how I started focusing on animals in these situations,” she recalls. After graduating, she spent a few years working in clinical practice in London, before embarking on a six-month volunteer veterinary mission through the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia.

“That changed the way I considered everything,” she says. “After all I saw there, I couldn’t go back to working in a practice in London. That’s when I settled in Sydney and took the biggest turn in my career.”

Dr Tong joined the University of Sydney for a training role in pathology, and soon discovered the NSW Coroner’s Office was just across the road. Very soon, a decisive working relationship evolved.

“I had a great mentor there and when cases came in that involved animals in some way, they would engage me to support it from the animal side. That was when the RSPCA, National Parks and the NSW Police would bring me in on certain cases, usually the ones involved in determining a case of death.”

One of the high-profile cases she was involved in was an investigation into greyhound mass graves on a Hunter Valley property. Dr Tong and her team painstakingly excavated and analysed the remains of 101 greyhounds. It was the first time a mass grave of any species had been forensically excavated in Australia.

Animal abuse in the home. Illegal trafficking of live animals. Animals involved in crime scenes. Evacuating mass graves of dead greyhounds. Autopsies on animals who have died a range of deaths. It’s all essential work, and a very long way from her London days in the local vet practice treating cats that needed their teeth cleaned.

The fact her work is so very varied, she states, is a huge inspiration. But Dr Tong adds that while she enjoys being on the frontline, this area of work does demand a strong commitment to striking a balance—for the sake of mental health and wellbeing.

“Burnout is a risk factor for all of us working as vets and something I have found at times I have had to manage by taking time out to take care of myself,” she says. 

“I have developed what I call an ‘emotional shield’—a kind of professional detachment I manage to strike on the job. What gets me through is knowing I’m doing something constructive in contributing to the right resolution. For me it’s important I’m working towards uncovering the truth.”

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