The One Health Initiative: Optimizing Wellbeing for Humans, Animals, and Cities

May 2, 2024

At Lincoln Park Zoo, experts use the One Health initiative as a foundation that offers a holistic perspective on public and animal health. Here’s exactly what that means and how it affects the way Urban Wildlife Institute researchers work.

What Is One Health?

One Health is a collaborative scientific effort focused on understanding the inextricable connection between people, animals, plants, and our shared environment—and optimizing the health of all of them.

“The goal is to really work toward win-win solutions, where we make clean environments that support healthy wildlife populations, and that means fewer health risks for people,” UWI Assistant Director (One Health) Maureen Murray explains. “The health of animals and people can be connected because animals can carry diseases, called zoonotic diseases, that can be transmitted from animals to people. The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example of an emerging infectious disease that originated in animals but then spread to people.”

For the Urban Wildlife Institute and Lincoln Park Zoo, One Health is a multidisciplinary organizing framework that can help cities meet the health challenges they will face as they continue to urbanize. It’s a way of looking at issues with a  systems-level approach that can address environmental, social, and political problems from social justice to environmental pollution.

The concept of One Health applies to both positive and negative outcomes. For example, a rat with leptospirosis could urinate anywhere—on the streets, grass, near a water source. Then, a dog could walk through said grass, the pup’s owner wipes their feet and now all parties, including the local environment, are infected and the cycle begins.

On the more positive side, a community garden can offer positives to the environment such as rich soil and runoff mitigation. These gardens can also provide respite to humans and an opportunity for pollinators to feast or migratory birds to take a rest. In turn, animals, humans, and environmental health all benefit from this community garden.

Incorporating One Health Into Zoo Initiatives

For more than two decades, Lincoln Park Zoo has studied wildlife disease, stress, and physiology in zoo and wild populations to provide us with the tools to protect and conserve animal and human health.

That work has looked like everything from vaccinating dogs in the Serengeti to minimizing rabies and canine influenza in African painted dogs and lions to monitoring rat carcasses in Chicago to understand causes of death and the potential impacts on Chicagoans.

In all these cases, One Health allows researchers to consider how ecosystems are interwoven as a way of preventing and managing disease transmission. This has become a priority for Lincoln Park Zoo; as part of the zoo’s most recent strategic plan, the zoo has made it a goal to formalize a One Health-centered program.

Andrea Flores and tick drag flannel sheet
UWI One Health Research Coordinator Andrea Flores does a tick drag as part of a process to monitor tick activity and mitigate disease in Chicago.

UWI and One Health

The zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute is interested in how wildlife health impacts human health, for better and for worse. The One Health framework creates an umbrella under which elements of urban ecosystems can be connected and considered together as a way of promoting healthy cities.

UWI experts are exploring the impacts of rats on human mental health, conducting research on ticks in Cook County (even finding the first documented presence of Lyme disease in 2021), and looking into how city planning and gentrification can impact which species are present in certain areas.

As part of this holistic view, researchers also take into account factors such as land cover, habitat fragmentation, urban heat islands, air and land and water pollutants, and noise and light pollution—which all affect how both living beings move and act in cities. These are aspects of an environment that can stress out both animals and people as they go about their daily business and recreation activities. And researchers also note that access to the answers to some of these problems may vary based on policy, socioeconomic status, and access to resources that are affected by equity issues.

“By understanding like how living in clean environments can protect our health, that’s great for wildlife conservation and that’s also great for public health,” Murray says.

garbage cans with rat holes
These trash cans in Chicago’s 1st Ward show telltale signs of rat activity in the form of holes chewed through the plastic.

With this in mind, UWI continues its research into the intersection of human, animal, and city health to provide data-based solutions that will help cities become more wildlife-friendly and human-healthy.

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