Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick (1940-2015)

With the death of Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, we lost one of the leading advocates for humane wildlife population control. His research, development, production, and long-term use of immunocontraceptives in the field and in zoos to control reproduction benefited a wide range of animals, from horses on Assateague Island to elephants in South Africa. He demonstrated that one type of immunocontraceptive vaccine—porcine zona pellucida (PZP)—was highly effective, reversible, and safe for pregnant and nursing animals, while causing no serious side effects.

His dedication to the study of immunocontraceptives was triggered by a 1971 meeting with officials from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who asked if he could prevent wild horses from reproducing. Over time, particularly after witnessing the brutality of wild horse roundups, Jay became an outspoken critic of the BLM’s wild horse and burro management and continued to advocate for the use of PZP in wild horses throughout his career.

AWI began working with Jay in the early 1980s, with a shared perspective on the utility of humanely curbing population growth in certain wildlife populations. Some time ago, I spent one of the most pleasurable days of my career on Assateague Island with Jay and his colleague, Dr. John Turner, seeking horses to inoculate. Jay was passionate about what he did, and defended it fiercely on both scientific and ethical grounds. One of his most exciting findings was that immunocontraceptives not only prevented population growth, but also caused the population to decline over time.

In 1998, Jay founded the Science and Conservation Center (SCC) at ZooMontana in Billings. The SCC became a key facility in developing PZP and continues Jay’s work to promote and improve this vaccine to benefit captive and wild animals around the world.

Early in our friendship, I told Jay I thought he would be an ideal candidate to serve on what was then known as the National Animal Damage Control Advisory Committee. He was willing, was nominated by AWI, and was appointed. Thus, he found himself on this advisory body to the Secretary of Agriculture regarding the USDA’s notorious animal damage control program (now known as Wildlife Services), heavily outnumbered by individuals with little or no concern for wildlife. There was no reasoning with this biased group, and he spent a good bit of time out of the meeting room, letting his blood pressure settle. I’m not sure he ever forgave me for this, and he certainly liked to remind me of it from time to time.

Just as it had been on the advisory committee, Jay recognized that the biggest hurdle to implementing practical, humane management practices was addressing the politics of wildlife management. As long as I knew him, he was grumbling about the latest political nightmare, which often came from those who preferred lethal methods, but occasionally came from some who consider themselves animal protectionists. Opponents to humane wildlife control, particularly state wildlife agencies, developed an assortment of arguments, many entirely without merit, in an effort to thwart the development of PZP. Even when they agreed to permit the use of PZP, agencies would often delay implementation of the trials—causing the target populations to expand even further and undermining the efficacy of the vaccine. Although frequently flabbergasted by such arguments and tactics, Jay—the consummate scientist—would counter each absurd claim with data and, often, a bit of wry humor.

Coming to terms with his death is hard, but his legacy lives on. For example, the horses on Assateague—minus the burden of pregnancy and raising young—are enjoying much longer, healthier lives without being subject to roundups and removal. Jay will be sorely missed by his friends, as well as those who embraced his work and shared his goal of humane wildlife management. But the science of immunocontraception will continue to develop, techniques will be refined, and countless animals will benefit because of the foundation laid by Jay.

—by Cathy Liss