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The Something I Do
“Because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something I can do...”
—Edward Everett Hale
For more than 20 years I have spent my Saturday nights volunteering as part of a team charged with caring for sick, injured, and orphaned seals and sea lions – one of 28 volunteer animal care crews at The Marine Mammal Center, a veterinary hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area. Taking care to keep them wild so they can be returned to their ocean home, we prepare meals, feed, and clean up after these rescued animals. Under the direction of veterinary staff, we administer medication and provide emergency treatment. The hours are long, and, with patients ranging in size from 6 to 600 pounds, the work is physically demanding and, at times, dangerous. Despite extensive training and decades of experience, I’ve been bitten a half dozen times and, even with a hot shower and Advil before bed, I generally wake the next morning with bruised and aching muscles. So, the question you may be asking is, what keeps me going back week after week?
Animals were the initial appeal. I grew up near the ocean and had spent many hours watching wildlife. The opportunity to work closely with these remarkable creatures was irresistible. But any romantic notion about what it would be like was put to rest by my first shift. It was a busy day and the understaffed crew just didn’t have the time to train a new volunteer. So when a sea lion under their care started to decline, they asked me to monitor him, with instructions that I should let them know if he got worse. For the next three hours, sitting at a distance so I didn’t add to his distress, I bore witness to his struggle and that of the volunteers and staff trying to save his life. I no longer remember if he made it through or not – there have been thousands of animals in my care since then – but I remember being profoundly moved by the experience. I wanted to be part of this caring community; there was no question that I would be back the next week.
I’ve heard more than one person say, “I came for the animals and stayed for the people.” This has certainly been my experience. It may sound self-serving, but it takes a special kind of person to do this work. Setting ego and vanity aside we work together in roles that likely bear no resemblance to our lives outside the Center. We are lawyers, teachers, nurses, and engineers during the week, but come Saturday night we don our waterproof bib overalls, rain boots, and gloves to work as part of an elite team of marine mammal care experts. And expert we are: After 23 years I’ve developed a comically specialized set of skills – things like drawing blood from an elephant seal and tube-feeding a harbor seal. But our true power is a product of our commitment to the team. Like most families, we find humor in hardship, learn from our mistakes, celebrate our victories, and mourn our losses.
My work at the Center has given me an up close and personal view of some of our most intractable environmental challenges: northern elephant seals vulnerable to disease because near extinction has left them with a dangerous lack of genetic diversity. Guadalupe fur seal pups left starving and alone when their mothers go in search of food made scarce by abnormally warm ocean temperatures. California sea lions exhibiting seizures and other life-threatening neurological symptoms as a result of exposure to toxic algae flourishing in warm ocean waters enriched by agricultural runoff. And more animals injured by human negligence (e.g., entanglements from ocean pollution) and deliberate violence (e.g., bullet wounds) than I care to remember.
Climate change, industrial pollution, ocean trash, and gun violence – all impossibly complicated issues I have limited ability to change, except as they impact the patient in front of me. An animal who, for at least one night, I can feed and protect, whose pain I can manage. Then sometime soon, if all goes well, this being in front of me – and all the others who survived under our care – will celebrate its health and freedom with a sprint across the sand and a dive back to its ocean home. Perhaps someday we will find a way to live in balance with the nonhuman residents of this planet, until then, I will work to make a difference where I can – and do the something I can do.
Susan Kamprath is the Director of Project Support at Earth Island Institute.