Sixth grade St. John School students were fortunate to visit the Plum Island Animal Disease Center as part of their science curriculum this Fall. With their teacher Mr. Pearson, they embarked on the 35-minute ferry ride from Old Saybrook to the island located off the north fork of Long Island. Heavy dense fog on the morning of the trip added to the intrigue as the ferry horn boomed often while the captain navigated across the blanketed Sound.
The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) research facility dedicated to the study of foreign animal diseases (FAD) – diseases that are not occurring within the U.S., but are common in other parts of the world. Since 1954, the sole goal of the facility is to protect the livestock of the U.S. from these FADs, most notably Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). In addition to DHS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also performs key scientific missions at Plum Island. The 6th Graders learned that if there was an outbreak of FMD in the U.S., it would immediately cost our economy $50 billion, and hundreds of billions thereafter. The rest of the world would cease to import U.S. products impacted such as beef, pork, and dairy products and the economic result could be catastrophic. The last outbreak of FMD in the U.S. was in 1929.
Following a walking tour from the boat, passing the grave of Colonel Gardiner, supposedly buried there (more on him later!), students were welcomed to the facility by a research leader from Plum Island and senior scientists who spoke of the current animal disease research and vaccinations being developed. A veterinarian explained the important role that Plum Island plays in diagnosing animal diseases worldwide. In addition, Plum Island veterinarians help train other veterinarians from across the globe to diagnose animal diseases. It was pointed out that FMD affects cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, deer and bison and is one of the most highly contagious diseases on the planet. Interestingly, FMD is what is known as a “non-zoonotic” disease which means that it is spread only from animal to animal - humans cannot contract FMD, but they can assist in spreading the disease from animal to animal if they aren’t properly decontaminated, or cleaned.
The day spent on Plum Island also included an outdoor tour. Students saw the old U.S. Army base, Fort Terry, the original reason that the U.S. purchased the island prior to the Spanish-American war. The buildings at Fort Terry were used as offices, housing and even to store weapons to protect New York and Connecticut from enemy warships. Long after the Army left Plum Island in 1954, the workers at Plum Island still use some of the original buildings today to support the current FAD mission!
One of the most iconic buildings on the island is the lighthouse, built in 1869 but no longer used as a navigation aid. The students pondered whether the ghost of Colonel Gardiner, buried nearby, haunts the lighthouse as has been rumored. A nearby lighted tower now serves as a navigational aid to guide mariners through “Plum Gut” – the channel between the tip of Long Island and Plum Island. Students visited one of Fort Terry’s gun emplacements, Battery Eldridge, built in 1906, which served as protection for the island with its pedestal-mounted guns. These guns were brought to Europe during WWI.
Untouched nature is at its best on Plum Island. Osprey nests are abundant and the students were told that over 200 bird species exist on the island. Plum Island’s coastline is home to over 300 seals during the fall and winter months. All and all, it was fascinating day for the students. As the ferry departed, the stubborn fog had finally lifted, revealing the beauty of the landscape.