After Leonard Eldridge graduated from Washington State University’s veterinary college in 1965, he was known as the folksy, country-type vet who drove gravel roads at dark to treat sick farm animals – a role similar to the James Herriot character made famous in the book "All Creatures Great and Small.”

Today, Eldridge is more like the scientist played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1995 film, "Outbreak.” Hoffman is the hero, and the villain is a pathogen that jumped from animals to humans.

Global travel, changing weather patterns and growing populations contribute to the advance of harmful diseases that spread between animals and humans or are transmitted from animal to animal. Eldridge’s job as Washington state’s chief veterinarian and assistant director of the Animal Services Division of the state’s Department of Agriculture is to keep the pathogens that cause those diseases in check.

Eldridge, who wore a crimson Cougar pin on his lapel, traveled from Olympia to WSU recently to address third-year veterinary students in a class that didn’t exist until this academic year: Emerging and Exotic Diseases of Animals. The course replaced the Foreign Animal Diseases class.

"It’s a different world now,” Eldridge told the lecture hall gathering. "You as veterinarians will be on the first line of defense against infectious agents that can have deadly and economically devastating consequences.”

Eldridge went through a roster of diseases that can threaten agriculture, animal and public health, including avian influenza, Q fever, West Nile virus, rabies and foot-and-mouth disease. Because dangerous microbes lurking in a faraway land one week can launch widespread disease on U.S. soil the next, "We must safeguard the people of Washington by identifying and limiting their exposure,” he said.