By Trina Wood
Rick Tucker was a veterinary student at UC Davis on Sept. 11, 2001. He knew then that he would join the Army at some point in the future.
After graduating in 2003, he worked in private practice for four years as a large-animal veterinarian — one year in Turlock, three in Visalia — before he received his military commission in 2007.
After four months of basic training for medical officers in San Antonio, Tucker was given his first assignment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash., where, ironically, he was “stuck” in a small-animal practice.
“It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I joined,” he said. “But I did enjoy being able to help the military working dogs.”
By Thanksgiving 2008, Tucker was deployed to Afghanistan in a supportive role. In addition to serving as a veterinarian, he helped oversee food safety programs, checked refrigeration temperatures and storage conditions, and approved sources of food and water for troops.
While in Afghanistan, Tucker had his first chance to work with dromedary camels, which are critical for dairy production in many parts of the world.
“That’s where my obsession with camels began,” he joked.
Following a tour in Afghanistan, Tucker traveled to Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso. In addition to camels, he worked with cattle, teaching artificial insemination techniques, deworming and providing additional training to local veterinarians and paraveterinary professionals.
“When we can assist in the health of animals in these regions that people rely on for dairy and meat production, we also improve their lives,” he said. “That leads to greater economic stability for the region as a whole.”
While in Senegal and Burkina Faso helping tribesmen establish an artificial insemination program, Tucker found it difficult to determine the best method to synchronize the herd’s estrous cycles.
The villagers used a different technique than Tucker had used before, and he wanted to conduct a study to determine which method would yield the best results.
“I didn’t know enough at that point about how to set up the study or how many animals to include for statistically significant sample sizes,” he said. So Tucker contacted some colleagues from the school who were graduates of UCD’s master’s of preventive veterinary medicine program to get advice.
“I decided if I’m going to keep doing this in developing countries and want people to trust that my techniques would be effective, I needed an MPVM,” he said.
The Army requires long-term health care education from medical officers to advance in their career, from residencies or MPVM to Ph.D. degrees.
“You just have to figure out where and what you want to do, get accepted, and the Army covers the educational expense,” said Tucker, who was recently board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine. “I knew the MPVM program at UC Davis would provide me the expertise I needed.”
Tucker enrolled in the program in the fall of 2012. He is also pursuing a master’s degree in international agricultural development.
In return for supporting the three years of school, the Army will get five additional years of service from Tucker.
As part of his MPVM, Tucker is collaborating with Addis Ababa University and the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, a laboratory for the World Organization of Animal Health, to set up a large study on camel disease in Ethiopia. The disease is transmitted among camels by biting flies and causes acute or chronic illness that manifests in wasting, anemia, abortion and decreased milk supply. Those camels that aren’t symptomatic become carriers.
If the grant is approved, Tucker would travel to Ethiopia in the spring or summer to set up a study on trypanosomosis, a common ailment among camels worldwide and related to sleeping sickness in humans.
“While camels are robust animals, they are reproductively inefficient and don’t start calving until the age of 5 and calve only every two years,” Tucker said. “So it’s critical to address this disease in setting up a dairy industry in Ethiopia where increased milk yields would impact human health and nutrition.”
A secondary focus of the project will be studying brucellosis, a zoonotic disease, in camel milk.
“This project is really the perfect marriage between a MPVM and master’s of international agriculture development,” Tucker said. “It would allow researchers the chance to get some hard data on camel disease in Ethiopia and build economic stabilization in the region.”
For more information about the MPVM program, see www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/mpvm. The application period will be open until Jan. 15.
— UC Davis News Service