Eagle River scientist finds national spotlight

Friday, September 29, 2017 - 13:18
  • Dr. Kathy Burek reviews photographs of beached whales at her Eagle River home office on Aug. 31, 2017. Burek is one of the only board-certified veterinary pathologists in the state of Alaska. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Dr. Kathy Burek examines a dead swan. Based in Eagle River, Burek is one of the only board-certified veterinary pathologists in the state of Alaska. (Courtesy photo)
  • Dr. Kathy Burek examines a dead whale. Based in Eagle River, Burek is one of the only board-certified veterinary pathologists in the state of Alaska. (Courtesy photo)

When Dr. Kathy Burek first began working as a veterinary pathologist more than two decades ago, magazine reporters and reality TV weren’t part of the picture.

Fast forward to 2017. In January, Burek’s work was featured in a lengthy article in Outside magazine. A few months later, the story was reprinted in the Alaska Dispatch News. Then came the queries from reality television producers and Vice News.

“I said, ‘Really? Vice News? No. I don’t watch TV, I don’t get HBO,’” Burek said, laughing. “It was very funny.”

But the producer was persistent, she said. She agreed to meet. In late August, her work was featured in a five-minute segment on HBO’s Vice News Tonight. She was pleasantly surprised by the results, she said. For Burek, the increasingly frequent media inquiries are an uncomfortable means to a larger end.

Science needs to be shared, she said.

“It doesn’t do us any good if we’re doing stuff in a vacuum,” Burek said.

When a wild animal dies, Burek finds out why. For 22 years, she’s traveled and worked in some of the most remote corners of the state, from the North Slope to the Aleutian Islands, contracted by agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She’s rounded up Prince William Sound harlequin ducks by kayak, captured Steller sea lions, studied polar bears with the United States Geological Survey and assessed unusual mortality events in sea birds, sea otters and seals.

By sharing her work with magazines and newspapers and cable news shows, the Eagle River veterinary pathologist said she hopes to draw public awareness to Alaska’s changing climate.

“I think it’s important,” she said. “We’re already seeing changes in what I do.”

One sunny morning in early September, she studied photos of four recently beached beaked whales on Adak Island, scanning the images on her computer monitor for clues and subtle signs.

“Oh, that’s going to be pretty stinky,” she said, peering at a photo of a rotting whale come to rest by the high tide line.

What killed them? Sometimes there’s no clear answer, she said, but there are always theories. Beaked whales are extremely sensitive to acoustic trauma, Burek said. Underwater sonar can be fatal.

“The problem is, when they’re this rotten – it’s hard to prove it, even in a fresh animal – so there’s no way we could prove it on these,” she said, eyes fixed on the images on her screen.

Then she began searching for a last-minute flight out to Adak.

Burek doesn’t travel as frequently as she once did, she said. Business is not booming. While national media attention has thrust her work into the spotlight recently, business is at an all-time low, Burek said. Scientific funding in many areas is drying up, she said, and it’s important that people know about that part, too. It’s all interconnected, she said.

Meanwhile, the environment is changing: Burek feels the impact.

“It’s happening,” she said. “It’s affecting people, and it’s affecting animals.”

She didn’t sign up to be the messenger, she said, but she’s always willing to share what she knows — even if it means an appearance on HBO.

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]

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