Alumna works to sea change in the world

Childhood dream becomes reality for Dr. Claire Erlacher-Reid (DVM, 2008)

Claire Erlacher-Reid’s path to becoming a veterinarian started at the age of 5, as she watched famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau on his televised adventures at sea. There were family trips to zoos and aquariums, and to the local library where she read every book she could find about animals. And then her family visited SeaWorld, where her parents bought her a book about manatees.

On the third page of that book there was a picture of a man bottle-feeding a rescued orphaned manatee with a quote from Baba Dioum, Senegalese forestry engineer and conservationist. It read: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

“It was in that moment that I knew working at SeaWorld was my dream job,” Erlacher-Reid (DVM, Class of 2008) recollected in an email interview. “I also realized I needed others to care about the world as much as I did if I wanted to help save it.”

She started drawing posters that said, “Help Save Endangered Animals,” and with permission, posted these drawings on the walls of her school, library, and in hotel lobbies. “I hoped to inspire people to care for these species and take action to help save them. I was bullied at school for doing this, but I never let my dreams falter,” she said.

Claire Erlacher-Reid was 9 years old when she drew this poster advocating for animals.

Erlacher-Reid has carried that book and that quote through life. In a satisying dose of cosmic comeuppance to all the young bullies who teased a girl who had the gall to find her dream early and set about achieving it soon after, she posed years later for her own version of that photo as a senior staff veterinarian at SeaWorld.

Claire Erlacher-Reid, DVM, Dipl. ACZM
Senior Staff Veterinarian
SeaWorld Orlando &
Florida Coral Rescue Center

Living Her Dream

Erlacher-Reid joined the staff at SeaWorld Parks in San Diego in 2014. She is now a senior veterinarian on a staff of four who are responsible for the health of 28,249 animals at SeaWorld, Discovery Cove, and Aquatica in Orlando.

“Every single day is a new adventure, and no two days are alike, which requires me to wear many hats. I work as a veterinary clinician, a biologist and researcher, a teacher and motivational speaker, and an author and editor,” she said.

“On any single day I may be anesthetizing a moray eel, examining a coral colony, performing lifesaving surgery on a rescued sea turtle, performing an ultrasound exam on a killer whale, and traveling into the field by boat to disentangle an injured dolphin or rescue a manatee that has been hit by a boat.”

On top of that, the veterinary team leads a robust rescue and rehabilitation program, she said. SeaWorld parks has rescued more than 40,000 animals over the course of 50-plus years, including manatees, birds, reptiles, whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, and otters.

“Many of the ailments we treat in injured rescued animals are due to human interactions and are preventable; therefore, education of the public is of utmost importance to influence change to human behavior. Thus, teaching also plays a vital role in a typical workday at SeaWorld,” she said.

Saving the Reefs

In a job full of days spent caring for species most would consider unusual, there is one even more out of the ordinary that has captured Erlacher-Reid’s attention.

“I work with a diverse range of aquatic species and it seems that nearly every case I encounter is unusual and challenging in its own way. Of those varied species, the coral tends to be the most unusual in their clinical presentation, their anatomy, physiology, and how they react and interact with their environment.”

She is the lead clinical veterinarian for the Florida Coral Rescue Center in Orlando, responsible for maintaining the health of approximately 800 coral colonies that are part of a nationwide effort to rescue Florida corals before they are impacted by the devastating Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) that has been decimating Florida’s Coral Reef Tract.

As a member of the American Zoological Association’s Florida Reef Tract Rescue Program (FRTRP) Coral Health Management Advisory Team, she is helping to formulate diagnostic and treatment plans for coral.

“While we continue to learn something new every single day, there is still so much that we do not know. Thus, I have a responsibility to help advance a field of medicine that is still in its infancy. We are working from the ground-up based on anecdotal experience and ongoing research projects with very little established published references to guide us.

Performing an ultrasound examination on coral. Dr. Erlacher-Reid is part of a global effort to save coral reefs.

“I recently performed an ultrasound exam on a coral colony, and as simple as that sounds, it was ground-breaking. While we don’t have a foundation yet for what is normal or abnormal, this diagnostic may be a useful tool to visualize gall crabs and other organisms that can bore into coral and cause damage.”

Erlacher-Reid’s amazing journey began as an undergraduate at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. After graduating in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Music, she was accepted to the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, graduating in 2008.

There was a wide range of zoological medicine elective courses available to her at UGA, in addition to the Wildlife Treatment crew that provided the clinical skills and confidence needed to apply for post-graduate training programs in aquatic medicine.

Externship rotations during her clinical year were a further boost. The time and flexibility allowed during her fourth year took her to SeaWorld, Zoo Atlanta, Yerkes Primate Center, the Marine Mammal Center, and Zoo Tampa. That gave her the experience needed to apply and obtain the competitive Aquatic Veterinary Internship at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., and the Aquatic Medicine Residency Program at the University of Florida following veterinary school.

“Now as I mentor veterinary student externs at SeaWorld, I realize that not every school provides the same amount of externship time or flexibility that UGA CVM permitted.”

Mentors and Other Inspirations

Aquatic animal medicine is the most competitive specialty in veterinary medicine, and Erlacher-Reid credits her mentor, Dr. Rita McManamon, with providing her the encouragement to achieve her goals. Erlacher-Reid and McManamon, who retired in 2022 after 17 years with the CVM, shared experience in zoological medicine.

“She was the first person I encountered in my curriculum that fully supported my career aspirations. She offered me helpful advice and encouraged me to move forward with my dreams without hesitation and without negatively questioning my decisions. Throughout the trials and tribulations of veterinary school, she was the ever-shining bright light that believed in me, providing me with opportunities I needed to succeed in this field, supporting me with glowing recommendation letters, and growing my confidence.”

Marcus Brody, adopted through the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine. (Special photo)

In addition to a sterling education and fond memories, Erlacher-Reid took a more physical reminder of UGA VetMed with her after graduating: her cat. “I named him Brody after Marcus Brody, the fictional loyal, loveable, and awkward best friend and side kick to Indiana Jones.”

Brody was adopted from Dr. Scott Brown’s program developing treatments for chronic kidney disease in cats. Her first two years at CVM, Erlacher-Reid cared for the cats, and formed a strong attachment to Brody, a shy polydactyl, and was thrilled to learn that vet students could adopt the cats.

“I entered veterinary school never having been allowed to have a pet in my entire life; therefore, Brody became my very first pet. He accompanied me through the most pivotal times of my life and was my best friend,” she said. “It felt like no cat could love a human as much as he loved me, our bond was palpable, and the memories and love that I shared with him have truly changed my life for the better. He was a reminder of the significance of the human-animal bond and why a veterinarian’s job is so important to both the animals and the people who care for the animals too.”