National Marine Life Center, a good neighbor
I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. I always loved dolphins, but I didn’t have any idea about what you could do to actually work with them. Later on, I happened to be working for Johns Hopkins University and that allowed me to take some classes for free and sample some different things, and I started taking some environmental studies classes at the main campus in Baltimore. A whole new world opened up to me.
When I was at graduate school at Duke, there was an animal in one of our textbooks that was listed as “unidentified beaked whale.” The only way they knew it was a new species was that they had one or two specimens that they found on a remote beach somewhere. Here was this 20-foot animal that, if it lived on land, everyone would know about and study. But because it lives in the ocean, it was for all intents and purposes a brand-new species and no one knew about it. It was amazing to me, that there was so much of the ocean that was unexplored, and there were totally new species that we didn’t know about.
I did an internship at a dolphin cognition research laboratory in Hawaii and got to know four dolphins. Pretty quickly, I had to throw away all those fanciful notions that I had about them, that they’re these mystical, god-like creatures of the sea. I got to know them as individuals: sometimes aggressive, sometimes quirky, sometimes petulant, very much like a person in some ways, and completely foreign in others.
After Hawaii, I moved to Georgia where I was working to help the state achieve a federally approved coastal zone management program. A year and a half later, my last activity for the state was planning the federal approval ceremony—that was a huge sense of accomplishment. Then I moved across the country to work at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, the nation’s largest marine animal hospital, and worked in their stranding program for seven years. We don’t have much opportunity to study marine animals in the ocean. When they get sick and come ashore—when they enter our world, if you will—that gives us a lot of opportunity to learn about them.
I had a friend who is the director of the rescue program at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and she told me about this part of the world and what was needed in terms of the animal stranding situation here. I thought it was a neat opportunity to take that next step, to go from a very established organization to a start-up, basically, and see if we could get this operational and running, and I arrived at the National Marine Life Center in 2005.