Being a Wildlife Veterinarian: Dr. Karra Pierce

Karra Pierce - Director of Veterinary ServicesDr. Karra Pierce is the Director of Veterinary Services at the Wildlife Center, although at the time of her interview she was serving as a veterinary intern, which is a one-year post-doctoral program.  Veterinary interns are involved in all aspects of wildlife medicine including managing the thousands of patients that are admitted each year by providing physical exams, diagnostic sample collection, radiography, anesthesia, surgery, medical treatment, necropsy, husbandry, record maintenance, telephone consultations, and on-call emergencies.  In her role as the intern, Dr. Karra also supervises dozens of senior veterinary students from various schools throughout the year.

See Dr. Karra at work in our TV series, UNTAMED: Life is Wild!

What’s your background? How did you become a wildlife veterinarian?

Prior to becoming a veterinarian, I was a wildlife rehabilitator in Canada. I loved working with wildlife so much I decided to go to vet school with hopes of one day becoming a wildlife veterinarian! During vet school I continued to look for opportunities to work with wildlife – I even came down to the Wildlife Center of Virginia for six weeks as a veterinary extern. After vet school, I did an internship working with small animals to solidify the skills and knowledge I learned during vet school, and then came to the Wildlife Center to be the veterinary intern the following year!

What’s your favorite thing about owls?

I love performing eye exams on owls! They have such large eyes, so all the important and interesting structures are easy to see. Due to their large size, owl eyes are also great for teaching students how to perform avian eye exams. Owls also have impressive ears that they use to locate their prey. Their ears are on the sides of their heads, and are so large that you can actually see the back of the owl’s eye through their ear! I love showing students owl ears for the first time, and seeing how surprised they are at the location at the size.

I also love how owls “head bob”. This is when they move their heads in all different directions, while still looking at you. This is how owls judge distance, and determine how close or far things are from them. They aren’t able to move their eyes from left to right, or up or down like we can – so instead they move their heads to figure out where things are located in the world relative to them.

Closeup of Barred OwlWhat’s the biggest challenge in working with owls?

Owls come in a variety of sizes as well as demeanors. Some are very defensive and feisty and will try and talon and bite you (like Great Horned Owls); other species’ defensive mechanism is to “act like a tree” and freeze to blend in (like Eastern Screech-Owls). This means you can’t treat all owls the same and have to consider their individual natural history and behavior.

Another challenging aspect of working with owls relates to their feathers. Owls need practically perfect feathers to fly, and fly silently. It is essential that owls fly silently so they can be effective predators, and silently swoop up on whatever they are interested in eating. Whenever they come into the Wildlife Center of Virginia with injuries, we need to keep them in enclosures while their injuries heal. Sometimes during this time, they can damage their feathers, which can delay their release.

What’s your advice for people who want to work in the wildlife medicine field?

Get as much experience as possible. Find your local wildlife rehabilitation center and start volunteering there. It is also important to look for opportunities outside of your local area to gain more and diverse experience. I’d also recommend keeping an open mind, and recognizing that there are so many different ways to work with wildlife and different ways to help wildlife. If you truly want a career in wildlife medicine you need to be prepared for long hours, often be willing to relocate, and understand that not every animal can be saved. As a result, you will certainly see some sad situations, but you can also make a meaningful contribution to wildlife and animal welfare. 

Looking for more information and advice on working with wildlife?