I’m at a conference in western Colorado, called Curiosity Retreats, which brings in luminaries on a wide array of subject areas to explore big ideas. Among a roster of extraordinary speakers, I was most excited to listen to a talk scheduled yesterday afternoon called “Wonders of the Ocean” by Dr. Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence and a former chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
I missed most of Dr. Earle’s talk because my wife Lisa and I had found a distressed baby ground squirrel the day before. She was in the grass in the searing heat on a 95-degree day, and not moving, and she seemed very vulnerable out in the open. We carefully checked on her and we startled her into moving. But she clearly didn’t seem to have her strength or her wits, and though we looked far and wide, we didn’t see any sign of her mom. Perhaps just four weeks old, she needed parental care to survive.
I made a lifeline call to several HSUS wildlife experts for advice on what to do. They reminded me that in these cases there are often no easy answers. After much discussion, we picked up the squirrel, took her inside, and tried to gently hydrate and then nourish her. They recommended we put her back outside before dark, so that her mother might find her, since ground squirrels are active only during the day. We did that, but the baby seemed confused and disorientated. After additional consultation, we picked her up and stowed her away in a box with towels and food and water for the night.
We started searching for wildlife rehabilitation centers, and since we are on the western slope of Colorado, about an hour south of the town of Grand Junction, there were few people to be found doing this work. I am always amazed, though, that there are self-sacrificing animal advocates wherever you go, and sure enough, we found a couple of folks active in the general region. So yesterday, instead of being seated for Dr. Sylvia Earle’s talk, we found a rental car and drove 90 minutes north to the Arrowhead Veterinary Hospital in Fruita, Colo. The veterinary clinic, led by a board member of the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation, was to take care of her last night, and then today, Nanci Limbach, who had named the wildlife center for her animal-loving grandmother, was going to pick up the squirrel and take her to her center, which she runs as a volunteer.
In recent years, Lisa and I have raised some funds for the HSUS Sparrow Fund, to help wildlife and domestic animals in distress, and we pledged to make a donation to this very worthy group from the fund.
After we got back from the three-hour, round-trip drive, I caught the tail end of Dr. Sylvia Earle’s discussion about the oceans. She’s so lucid and passionate, but her message is so sobering. She reminded us that we are experiencing a modern-day crisis in the oceans, affecting enormous numbers of fish, with commercial operators from so many nations competing for high yields and often not seeing what destruction is occurring in their collective work. And while there are some fisheries management authorities within the coastal management zones of nations, there are vast areas of open ocean, far from our shores, that amount to a free-for-all.
In fact, Dr. Earle points out that we just call them “fish” even though there are 25,000 species of them – in the oceans and in fresh water. She says that when we eat chicken, we don’t just say we are eating “bird.” And when we eat beef, we don’t just say we are eating “mammal” and eat any creature we have a hankering for that day.
But that’s essentially what we do with fish – we have long menus of fish species that are sold in stores or served in restaurants, and we know little about the way they were caught, what the status of the species is, or what the incidental effects of industrial-style fishing practices are. She reminded us that for every pound of shrimp caught, there are 10 or even 100 pounds of other fish of so many species caught, too, and they are discarded. She told us about how, within just the last few years, the population of Bluefin tuna has declined by more than 95 percent. She said that global populations of grouper, snapper, and other species have also declined by 90 percent.
We are mining the oceans of life. We don’t think about it because it’s so far away, and we are so disconnected from the process of catching and killing the fish.
It all brought me back to our little squirrel. Some people may wonder why go to all that effort to save her, given that there’s no ecological importance to investing so much to save her.
But for me, it’s simple: her life matters to her. She was a vulnerable, suffering creature, and in this case, she was in distress. She needed help.
Dr. Earle reminded her audience of all the marine creatures whose lives we take without even a thought about it. All the suffering, all the by-catch. These are all wild creatures. Dr. Earle said it’s “wet bush meat” – akin to the killing of wildlife animals in Africa for the bush meat trade. It’s a humane issue and an ecological issue, of the highest importance.
The oceans are vast wilderness areas. We are scraping the bottoms of the seas, trawling with huge nets, and setting barbed long lines that are miles long. It’s a wonder there are any fish left. We are killing whales, dolphins, turtles, sea birds, and so many other creatures, in addition to the Atlantic mackerel, halibut, grouper, and other fish that have commercial value and that are the primary targets of these enterprises.
We may not think of fish the way we think of land animals, but they have a purpose and a life, too. Just like we think about a poor squirrel or an opossum in trouble, or a bird who flies into a window and has a head injury, how about those fish?
Every creature matters. I am especially thankful for the tender people who care for them – whether the wildlife rehabilitation facilities in Silt, Colorado, or the luminaries like Dr. Sylvia Earle who remind us about our responsibilities to all creatures great and small.