By Tyler Schneider
After graduating from the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 1987, Dr. Julie Burge expected to focus much of her work on cats, dogs, and farm animals as the profession typically entails.
Degree in hand, Burge moved to upstate New York, about 90 miles north of New York City, and began her career working at a small animal practice seeing dogs and cats.
“During that time, I had somehow become friends with people who owned a pet store, and they were breeding birds. I started learning a lot from them and started getting really interested in birds,” Burge said.
Burge began breeding her own birds over the next few years, applying her veterinary knowledge to fill in the gaps and perfect her understanding of avian anatomy.
“I had gotten zero training in vet school on pet birds. We had some chicken lectures on chicken pathology and chicken diseases. Maybe once in a while, they would say, ‘oh, yeah, by the way, parrots get this disease too’—and that was the extent of our exotic bird training,” Burge said of her undergraduate years.
Having rather quickly overcome that knowledge gap, Burge moved back to Missouri to establish Burge Bird Rescue in Grandview in 1990. By that point, she had about 50 birds she had personally rescued in tow from New York. As Burge herself likes to say, “that was the start of the empire.”
Now over three decades in, Burge says she typically takes in over 300 companion birds each year, many of which will go up for adoption once they are rehabilitated. Others will join her personal collection of retired breeding birds, which includes about 35 animals at present.
“By 2007, we were doing so many adoptions that I started an official nonprofit so that people could make tax deductible donations. We could do fundraising without having to pay taxes on it, and that would cover the cost of the birds instead of me paying for it out of my pocket,” Burge said.
In addition to those more numerous individual cases in which a family or single owner can no longer care for their pet bird, for whatever reason, Burge has been extremely active with disaster response ever since she started taking in birds rescued from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I trained with multiple different state and national organizations to do disaster response, which includes both natural disasters and manmade manmade disasters like puppy mills, where they will have hundreds of dogs living in terrible conditions,” Burge said. “They have similar cases for birds, horses, or all kinds of animals that might have been hoarded and not cared for properly.”
Her rescue stories are too numerous to list in this story alone, but some of the numbers are startling. In June of this year alone, Burge and her team of six employees faced their largest rescue case—they took in 161 rabbits from a home where unspayed and unneutered rabbits ran rampant, literally breeding like themselves.
“We are just now finishing up getting booster vaccinations and getting the last few of them spayed and neutered now. But I had to reach out to contacts in many states [to place them all in new homes],” Burge said.
In another staggering tale, about five years ago, Burge was contacted by the U.S. Humane Society to help with a case in Ohio where an individual had been hoarding over 140 birds in his home.
Greene County, MO, officials upped the ante a few years later with another massive hoarding case of over 1,500 animals—which included a great many “outside birds” like chickens and pigeons. Many of the latter can still be found in a pen just outside the Burge Bird Rescue facility, nestled just off the frontage road at 13833 S 71 Hwy.
With all the squawking and the mounds and mounds of feces that birds are known to produce, Burge and her team somehow manage to complete all the work that needs to be done without any major setbacks and an infectiously positive outlook.
Burge Bird Rescue will continue to take in birds, performing surgery and other needed healthcare on the animals, while rehoming and boarding others, for a long time to come.
While exotic pets (defined as any animal that isn’t a dog, cat, or livestock) do make rewarding pets for those with the proper foresight to understand and provide for all of their needs, there are thousands and thousands of animals that have been neglected or released. In particular, Burge stresses the horrible consequences of releasing captive-born birds into the wild, where they will almost surely perish.
To help Burge in caring for these animals, she asks for donations on their website, as well as donations of newspapers (she is always in need of more) and feathers (which she sells online to raise money for the facility).