The hands behind the knife

“I had a Cook Inlet beluga whale that choked on a flounder,” Dr. Kathy Burek Huntington of Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services, said. “You wouldn’t think of whales choking on a fish. It was wrapped around the larynx and was stuck going down. The spines [from the flounder] got embedded into the wall of the esophagus, so [the beluga] couldn’t move it out. That was such a surprising sort of thing.”

Dr. Kathy Burek performs a field necropsy on a beluga whale. Photo courtesy of Kathy Burek. Sampled on Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response permit 18786.

For over 20 years, Dr. Burek has been performing necropsies, or autopsies performed on non-human subjects, on wildlife found throughout Alaska. Burek also performs a variety of other services including histopathology, nutritional analysis and toxicology studies.

This summer, as of June 27, 85 gray whale strandings have occurred on the Pacific coast of the United States, ranging from California to Alaska, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. In Alaska alone, 14 gray whale strandings have occurred.

Necropsies help Burek by revealing information to determine the cause of death, health-related issues and other important data.

Burek is one of a small number of certified scientists in Alaska that can perform necropsies on Alaska’s wildlife, though she does work with communities and organizations state-wide when completing her research.

A necropsy begins with the discovery of a marine mammal or animal, and is then reported to agencies like Alaska Department of Fish and Game or the National Marine Fisheries Services, or NMFS. Strandings can be reported to the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network at their 24-hour hotline, (877) 925-7773.

“The public finds an animal, either a seal or a whale, and reports it to NMFS through their hotline, and then they contact me if it is a situation where we can do a necropsy,” Burek said.

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If the decision to perform a necropsy is made, Burek would then travel to the site and begin her work. Larger marine mammals like whales can not be easily transported, which requires scientists and biologists to perform the necropsy at the sight of the stranding.

Dr. Burek performs a necropsy in Adak, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Kathy Burek. Sampled on Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response permit 18786.

“Basically, [to perform] a necropsy, you start out looking at the outside of the animal, taking measurements. That kind of gives you an idea of the age and perhaps the body condition. Then we take it apart kind of methodically in routine patterns, and take samples as we go along,” Burek said.

Once samples are obtained, Burek can continue her work at her labs located at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The lab is funded by the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant through NOAA.

Though unusual mortality events such as those involving gray whales this past summer do happen quickly and in large numbers, Burek’s work is not always fast-paced.

“[A] common day for me is sitting at my desk and microscope and reading out the glass slides or reading out the histopathology, and trying to finish up cases,” Burek said.

Burek takes part in teleconferences, working with collected samples and collaborating with other organizations to find results on cases, both past and present.

“Although it’s been in the news a lot lately, I don’t do necropsies that often,” Burek said. “They seem to come in groups, like one week we had two gray whales, a ring seal and four moose. That was a very busy week. Other times, we don’t have anything for months.”

Answers are not so easily found, as information on the species can be limited.

“It’s not like on TV. Shows have made my life very difficult because they get an answer of what happened in an hour. First of all, it takes a long time but then also, sometimes, we never do figure it out, even if we try really hard,” Burek said.

However, the results from the necropsies can lead to actionable measures by the state, especially in instances involving human interactions. These situations occur when wildlife is affected by human activities, such as a whale being struck by a cruise ship.

Burek has encountered the interactions of humans on the ecosystem before. Alaskan sea otters were eating fish waste that was being dumped in the water by a processing plant and the otters were ingesting a parasite not normally found in the sea-otter population. The parasite was causing perforation in their stomachs. Through processes like necropsies, the connection between the otters and the processing plant was discovered.

“[Management agencies] were able to take the management action of requiring the fish processing plant to move the fish waste, and dump it out in deeper water because sea otters don’t dive very deep, and that took care of that problem,” Burek said.

Burek does not work alone. Technicians help with travel, sampling and lab work. Her current technician is in the process of transitioning to graduate studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Burek also collaborates with several people throughout the state as part of the stranding network, and offers training opportunities in communities like Sitka, Juneau and Kodiak. Local assistance is welcome, and volunteers in Anchorage play a role in Burek’s work too. 

Dr. Burek completes training in St. Paul, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Kathy Burek.

“I also have a lot of students volunteer because it takes quite a bit of work to cut up a whale or a seal,” Burek said. “It’s a really good experience.”

Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from undergrad students to house-wives and even members of Burek’s church. By volunteering, work with Burek can lead to connections between students, the community and state agencies, such as Alaska Fish & Game.

“[Working] with me, they [students and volunteers] come in contact with a lot of different biologists and researchers,” Burek said.

For those interested in volunteering with Burek, they can reach out to her or her staff at UAA or through her website.