Staff Spotlight: Dr. Rebecca Duerr, DVM MPVM — and now PhD

rebecca-duerr Caspian Terns with multiple fractures, Brown Pelicans with horrendous sea lion bite injuries, an oiled Great Blue Heron suffering from resulting burns on one-quarter of its body — these are just some of the avian patients over the past year in the care of Dr. Rebecca Duerr, our staff veterinarian.

In June, we were thrilled to congratulate Dr. Duerr for completing her PhD studies and contributing invaluable research to the complex field of oiled wildlife care. For her dissertation, she focused on assessment of nutritional depletion in birds affected by petroleum. Oiled birds endure extreme stress during the wash process, and as Dr. Duerr’s research has showed, most of these animals arrive at wildlife facilities in an extremely debilitated state, requiring much-needed nutrition, hydration and medical care prior to the procedure. When there are hundreds of birds in care during oil spill emergencies, what a response team feeds these compromised animals can be a life-or-death decision.

Dr. Duerr recently gave us the backstory on her dissertation, how she got involved with wildlife and her favorite part of the job as an avian vet. For those of you who are mulling a radical career change, read on! Her story may provide you with a little motivation to do so.

How did you get your start in wildlife rehabilitation? 

Dr. Duerr: My husband and I started volunteering at The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) in Sausalito in 1988 and WildCare in San Rafael, CA in the mid 1990’s while working as jewelers. Pretty much all of our free time was taken up by working with wild animals in one capacity or another. But then we had the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and work as artisans making science fiction movie and TV hand props. What could be cooler than working in Hollywood, right? Off we went.

Among many other projects, we made communicator badges and phaser rifles for Star Trek 8 and Deep Space Nine, made the cigarette gag props from the end of the first Austin Powers movie, and I sculpted several original props for the movie Spawn, but we both really missed working with animals. We finally decided to go back to school and pursue being veterinarians while on the set of Starship Troopers for two weeks, dressing extras in the armor our company had built. I was bored out of my mind and ended up doing a math review book in the wardrobe trailer. We both enrolled at San Francisco State University and completed BS’s in Marine Biology on the way to applying for veterinary school.

A Caspian Tern with multiple fractures, photo by Dr. Rebecca Duerr. Inset photo: Orthopedic surgery on the tern’s left leg.

I didn’t truly come to appreciate the incredible amazingness of birds until I landed my first paying job at a wildlife center at Wildlife Rescue Inc. (WRI) in Palo Alto, after returning to the Bay Area for school. Four main things struck me while working there:

1) Bird species are amazingly diverse and completely fascinating! I decided I wanted to specifically become a wild bird vet.

2) Wildlife rehabilitation as a field is enormously larger than the marine mammal world — hundreds of thousands of animals go through the hands of wildlife rehabilitators every year in the US, and most are birds.

3) Raptors are wonderful animals but seemed to already get special attention from veterinarians — rehabilitators were often on their own in helping birds of other species.

4) There were very few published resources that explored or explained best practices for doing what wildlife rehabilitators do every day.

Treating burn injuries on a Great Blue Heron, photo by Dr. Rebecca Duerr

I regretfully left WRI when Dr. Frances Gulland asked me to work for her at TMMC. Her approach of studying the medical problems of rehabilitated marine mammals as a window into what is occurring in each species in the wild and the ocean as a whole, strongly caught my interest and forms the basis of many of my goals for my current work at IBR. I also became involved in wildlife medicine publishing while working at TMMC, and had the opportunity to act as an editorial assistant for the massive textbook Marine Mammal Medicine. I later wrote the seal chapter in a book called Hand-Rearing Wild and Domestic Mammals, for which I also co-wrote the pig chapter and helped edit several others for the editor, Dr. Laurie Gage.

I thought there really needed to be a similar book for birds, and during the tail end of veterinary school I co-edited a book called Hand-Rearing Birds (2007) with Dr. Gage. I wrote four chapters and edited 22—handling the rehabilitation-oriented species while Dr. Gage managed the zoo-oriented chapters. Several International Bird Rescue staff members contributed material to the book, a 400+ page hardcover used as a staple reference text at many zoos and wildlife centers. Dr. Gage and I have also co-written chapters on the care of wild animal orphans for the 10th and upcoming 11th editions of The Merck Veterinary Manual.

What was the focus of your PhD research?

My dissertation is titled “Investigation into the Nutritional Condition and Digestive Capabilities of Seabirds during Rehabilitation in California”. My work focused on identifying the extent of the starved condition of seabirds that enter rehabilitation and the energetic requirements of these animals. I evaluated the validity of various subjective and objective methods of body condition assessment against a gold standard. I also performed the first dietary trial in real oiled birds to explore what we should be feeding these animals when they come into care. The point of studying all this was to guide our delivery of appropriate supportive care when we are presented with hundreds of birds simultaneously. One major finding of my work was that birds that become oiled in the cold ocean off California are not merely dirty but otherwise-healthy birds that need washing. The average bird enters care in extremely poor condition. These birds are essentially on the verge of death from nutritional depletion, on top of having to cope with other nasty effects of oil like skin burns and corneal ulcers.

An oiled Common Murre undergoes a wash at IBR’s Los Angeles center, January 2013. Photo by Bill Steinkamp

Another finding was that oiled Common Murres did better when fed lower fat diets, which is counter-intuitive. One would expect a starving animal to need as high a calorie diet as possible (e.g. higher fat content), but historical efforts to feed oiled birds high fat diets to get more calories in them may have been counter-productive. Four papers from my dissertation are currently at various stages of readiness for publishing. My master’s thesis was also on oiled bird care, and a paper from it should also be published within the next year. Sorry to say all five will be a bit dry for a general audience!

How long did it take to complete the DVM MPVM PhD trifecta?

Feels like a lifetime! 11 years total (4, 2, and 5, respectively).

Where are you from?

I grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, literally just about as far from the ocean as one can get! My dad taught biology at University of North Dakota when I was a kid.

What’s the best part about your job?

The best part for me is the excellent pairing of clinical medicine with endless opportunities for research on how to better surmount the particular problems of oiled and non-oiled aquatic birds. I also really enjoy avian orthopedics and repairing fractured wild birds, and seeing the amazing feats of healing Brown Pelicans are capable of!

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Left: Brown Pelican with a large and deep open wound located in the triangular area between the eye, ear and TMJ resulting from a piece of fishing tackle; Right: the pelican about a month after treatment. Photos by Dr. Rebecca Duerr

1 thought on “Staff Spotlight: Dr. Rebecca Duerr, DVM MPVM — and now PhD”

  1. Dr. Duerr,

    Before retirement I did mechanical engineering work in the fields of high energy physics and astro physics. The part of the work that I loved most of all was very fine, challenging hands on assembly and installation of stuff I had designed. After seeing the x-ray shots of your beautiful work on Tam’s broken leg I have to express my admiration for the work done by you and your husband. I am in awe.

    I hope he does well. Thanks for your efforts.

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