The Garden Island
KALAHEO — Gallstones, cow bones and preserved intestinal worms all sit in a collection of jars at Jade Fisher’s home.
Each is a souvenir of an investigation, pointing to the time she’s spent searching the bodies of deceased animals and finding the causes of their demises.
“What I love most is the unexpected things you see,” the Kapaa High School graduate said. “It’s beautiful. I have a respect and love for animals, even when they’re dead.”
Fisher was born in California and lived on Kauai’s South Shore from the time she was 9 years old. After high school, she spent a decade earning a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine and becoming a pathologist on the Mainland.
Fisher started her post-secondary education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and went to University of Colorado after deciding she wanted to become a veterinarian, because she liked its program.
After earning her DVM, she went to Tennessee to complete her residency in pathology. She came home in September and is looking for ways to use her skills to help her community.
“I’ve been away from home for 10 years and I’ve missed so many things,” Fisher said. “Friends that I’ve had for 20 years, we have deep roots here and I wanted to reconnect.”
Her ultimate goal is to contribute to research aimed at improving and preserving the environment, as well as help change environmental law.
“I want to collaborate and help improve (fish and other animal) populations,” Fisher said.
She was able to do just that in October. About two weeks after she landed on-island, five pilot whales beached themselves on Kauai’s Kalapaki Beach and died.
“They didn’t have a pathologist on the team and it’s crucial to have because it gives you an extra tool,” Fisher said. “Without a pathologist, they don’t have the skill set to do what we trained for years to do.”
The team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration readily accepted Fisher on board for the necropsies of the five dead whales. They worked a solid 24 hours gathering and preserving samples from the animals, Fisher said.
Hundreds of samples — less than one centimeter by one centimeter in size — were extracted from the whales, she said. Much of that is still being studied because it’s worked into a pipeline of other cases the scientists are working on.
“It takes a whole team to put it together,” Fisher said. “We had the whales at a private location and always had someone with the Hawaiian community there to explain the cultural beliefs, and we got to teach them a little bit about what we do, too.”
At the end of the necropsies, the whales were honored with a traditional Hawaiian burial at a secret location, she said.
Pilot whale necropsies aren’t the only experience that Fisher has had on Kauai; she worked with many island veterinarians as she gathered experience for vet school.
Kauai’s Aloha Vet, Dr. Scott Simms, was one who contributed to her passion for animals and love for investigating their ailments.
“I was 19 or 20 when I would go with him when he went to his appointments,” Fisher said. “I remember, once we enucleated a horse in the owner’s front yard once — we took out its eye.”
While Fisher has never been squeamish about anatomy, she didn’t find a love for studying diseases until she took her first pathology class in veterinarian school.
“I was captivated, so I asked the professor how I could get involved, and he told me to come shadow on the necropsy floor,” Fisher said. “I’d go there in the two hours in between classes and I was hooked.”
The cases she saw in textbooks came to life on the necropsy floor, and Fisher knew she’d found the focus for her residency. That choice led her to the University of Tennessee, which sees about 30 percent exotic zoo animals in their necropsy lab.
“I’ve done everything — elephants, rhinos and a bunch of tigers. Tennessee had a big cat rescue and we contracted with the zoo,” Fisher said. “One time they had 26 of their snakes die, so we had to go in and investigate that.”
Comparative anatomy fascinates Fisher, who also was able to work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel studying the hermaphroditic tendencies in male fish in the surrounding rivers.
“We were looking at urban water runoff and residues and pesticides, collecting fish and looking at their gonads,” she said.
That type of research is Fisher’s passion and she’s ready to partner with others who are interested in furthering understanding about Kauai’s environment.
ReefGuardians Hawaii is one of the organizations she’s jumped on board with, hoping to address the potential factors affecting the coral around Kauai. “I want to help with wildlife,” she said.