Michigan pathologist seeks causes of animal deaths

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) – When authorities want to know why an animal died, they often turn to Tom Cooley.

The wildlife biologist and pathologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is responsible for identifying what killed all kinds of wildlife.

Michigan opened a pathology lab in 1933 to uncover why wild animals die, in order to discover potential epidemics and environmental threats to the state’s wildlife, according to

The state has always been “ahead of the curve” by having its own lab and not depending on contracts with universities, he said.

Cooley became the state’s pathologist 35 years ago and says he’s seen a wide variety of animals come through the lab near Michigan State University’s campus. The lab normally doesn’t handle fish or reptiles but has dealt with several turtles in recent months.

“The fisheries division doesn’t really have a lab like ours, so we do get some,” Cooley said. “We’ve had some snapping turtles come in.”

The turtles have suffered from temperature shifts affecting their metabolism, resulting in an inability to digest food, Cooley said.

The lab typically examines between 500 and 650 animals a year, Cooley said. He said the lab normally sees animals like waterfowl and deer, but occasionally other species show up.

“We’ve had mice and squirrels before,” Cooley said.

The harsh winter this year has been especially hard on ducks because of increased ice cover on lakes and scarce food.

“We’ve already looked at a lot more ducks than usual,” Cooley said.

Cooley first became interested in wildlife pathology during the 1970s, when pesticide use started having an effect on a number of species. He attended Colorado State University, where he worked with bighorn sheep and mountain goats while earning a master’s degree.

His father also worked with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which also fed his interest in wildlife.

“It’s an interesting field because it’s not always the same,” Cooley said. “You see a lot of things.”