February 27th is International Polar Bear day. Today we will explore the career of someone who has studied polar bears and other arctic species: Alaskan Department of Fish and Game veterinarian, Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen.
As a child, Beckmen wanted to be a marine biologist. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Florida Atlantic University and went to Miami to earn her master’s, both in marine biology. Returning to her home state, she attended veterinary school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, went on to a zoo internship in South Carolina, then a marine mammal pathology fellowship in California, performing necropsies on seals, sea lions, whales and dolphins.
Beckmen moved to Fairbanks to work on her Ph.D. in 1994. While studying fur seals for her doctorate, she also worked with polar bears for the U.S. Geological Survey, and grizzly bears and moose with representatives from Alaska Fish and Game. In 2002, when the Fish and Game veterinarian retired, Beckmen was ready to take on her “dream job”.
Unlike most vets, a number of Beckmen’s patients have already expired. Beckmen is frequently called upon to determine the cause of death of different birds and mammals, or to investigate parasites or unusual tissues found in harvested game animals. “A lot of the work is like being a medical examiner,” Beckmen said in an interview. “The investigative work is fun. It’s satisfying when you can figure out what happened.” Keeping devastating wildlife illnesses such as Chronic Wasting Disease out of Alaska is also a priority. In addition, she does disease surveillance among wildlife populations, helps with the capture of wildlife so they may be radiocollared and counted, and educates humans on how to coexist with the “untamed critters” sharing their space.
Beckmen said that one of her most unusual experiences has been helping to relocate nearly 100 black bears a distance of 350 miles – transporting seven in a small bush plane at one time. For relaxation, Beckmen does dog mushing and skijoring with her two Alaskan huskies and Belgian Tervuren.
Written by Nicole Hutchison