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Hands soiled with oil

Veterinarian Valeria Ruoppolo opens a company that specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating fauna affected by oil spills



In 1994, after completing her undergraduate studies in veterinary medicine at Paulista University (UNIP) in São Paulo, Valeria Ruoppolo moved to Argentina, where she worked rehabilitating birds and sea mammals at a nongovernmental organization called the Mundo Marino Foundation. She found the experience quite helpful when she returned to Brazil. In 2000, she began her master’s degree work at the USP School of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Husbandry (FMVZ-USP) to study the principal causes of death in aquatic mammals such as whales.

From January to March 2000 (the same year in which she began her master’s program), she helped rescue hundreds of birds in Guanabara Bay after an oil pipeline connecting the Petrobras Duque de Caxias refinery to the Ilha D’Água terminal ruptured. Over one million liters of oil spilled over about 40 square kilometers (km²). “It was my first major environmental emergency,” she recalls.

Shortly afterwards, she was invited to go to the United States to present her rescue work carried out in Guanabara Bay. There she met other researchers who invited her to take part in rescuing animals in several regions in the world.

Ruoppolo became a professional in rescuing sea animals affected by oil spills. She has worked in countries such as Spain, Norway and South Africa, where in June 2000, an oil spill affected thousands of African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) in Cape Town. Because of all of these activities, she completed her master’s degree in 2003. Subsequently, she continued to work in areas affected by environmental disasters.

In 2008, a resolution by the National Environment Council (Conama) required companies responsible for port facilities, platforms, pipelines and refineries to prepare preventive plans to rescue animals in case of accidents. Ruoppolo saw this decision as a business opportunity, and in 2010, with three other partners, she founded Aiuká, a consulting firm that specializes in developing contingency strategies for environmental accidents.

“We conduct surveys of species that can be affected by spills and prepare early intervention plans in case of an emergency,” she explains. This planning is part of the business licensing process at the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). “Without this preventive plan, they cannot proceed with their activities.”

Aiuká’s headquarters are in Praia Grande, coastal São Paulo State, with a branch in Rio das Ostras, Rio de Janeiro State. Today the company employs 20 professionals, including biologists, veterinarians and oceanographers. Beginning in 2012, she had to reconcile her work in the firm with her PhD program, also at FMVZ-USP, completed in 2016. The idea was to study the effects of oil on Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus Magellanicus) in rehabilitation, “but there were no records of penguins affected by oil during the period,” she says. She revised the project and instead researched the effects of the molting process on the immune system of this species.

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