Welcome to this third episode in a series of interviews with wildlife response organisations that have been participating in the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System project. The intention is now to transition the project to a global oiled wildlife response service, with a guaranteed four-person wildlife assessment team available as a supplementary service through OSRL. We are posting monthly conversations with each of the network partners to raise awareness of the amazing organisations that have been collaborating on this.
In this episode, Paul Kelway OSRL’s Wildlife Preparedness and Response Manager is joined by JD Bergeron, CEO of International Bird Rescue. With 20 years of non-profit leadership under his belt and being the co-founder of a bicycle fundraiser in Zambia to raise money for girls in empowerment and HIV AIDS, you can’t miss the passion JD has for making a difference to the world.
Let’s hear from JD as he shares about the recent bird rescue mission at Long Beach Harbor and his take on what the transition of the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System project means for the industry.
You can watch the interview, listen to it on Soundcloud or read the transcript below.
INTERVIEW WITH INTERNATIONAL BIRD RESCUE
Paul: Could you briefly introduce International Bird Rescue? What's your mission and where and how do you carry out your work?
JD: International Bird Rescue is 50 years old this year. It started in April of 1971 in response to a big oil spill in the San Francisco Bay area. Our mission is to inspire people to act toward balance with the natural world by rescuing water birds in crisis. So while what we're doing inside our two wildlife clinics in California is very hands on, we hope that that our work and sharing it broadly inspires people to pick up that piece of trash or to help with a beach cleanup or something like that. All of us every day sort of taking those little actions that make a big difference.
Paul: Congratulations on the 50 years anniversary! Is there a specific story of the work that Bird Rescue has done that really highlights the organisation. How it works and the value it brings?
JD: It would be a remiss to not mention that you spent some time with Bird Rescue yourself, Paul. One of the special things about International Bird Rescue is that it has been a launching ground for building up experience for a lots of folks, especially among this larger GOWRS network.
A good example of the work that we do is actually a response we're doing right now. It's a non-oil incident in Long Beach Harbor. A nesting colony estimated about 3,000 elegant terns. Elegant terns are a kind of seabird that you've probably seen before, but maybe never, never thought to identify. They're really good at hunting for fish, and they nest colonially. The colony seems to have been disturbed about a month ago in its better habitat, a wildlife refuge and moved on completely, finding a couple of barges in the harbor. They crowded on. Good for safety, not so good for the chicks. Once they start running around and they're falling off the edge into the water. In normal environment going into and out of the water is pretty normal, but these birds cannot get back up the two feet distance between the water level and the barge. It has been about 10 days now of really intensive field operations scooping up the birds from the water because they get quite cold and once they get weak and cold they very quickly will die if not intervened on. We had admitted somewhere near 500 elegant tern chicks. What's really special about them, as well as their parents take pretty exceptional care of them for the first six months of their lives, meaning we have to do hand feeding. Some birds can be taught to eat out of a dish pretty quickly and easily, which makes the work a lot easier. These birds were being hand fed assisted feeding two to four times a day. Rising up, increasing the staffing, bringing in more volunteers, finding partners this is all kind of the lifeblood of what we do. We have a really good experience for practicing a lot of the protocols of a spill response without having the complexity of the contamination.
Paul: It's interesting that you're highlighting an example of a non-oil related incident, but essentially the expertise that international Bird Rescue has, and I’m certainly proud to be an alumni of the organisation in that sense, that there is really this sort of linkage between understanding how to care for these birds non-oil related incidents and then how those transfer to oil spill response and vice versa and how that expertise is relevant for so many different types of emergencies.
JD: Absolutely, and we've been using a slightly altered version of Incident Command. We have a structure, we have our daily briefings, everyone knows their role, span of control. I think it's a little bit more complicated obviously because we are self-funding this, there is no responsible party. This is something that nature conspired and perhaps some of human influence as well, but it is really good practice for what we do. I think it's also one of the things that Bird Rescue brings to the table in a spill response. We work with these birds daily every day of the year. A broad variety of aquatic species, the exact kind of birds that get oiled during a contamination event. We get a lot of practice with them year-round.
Paul: And obviously this is an incident in your backyard, so to speak, but the “international” in your name has been very much a core aspect over the years because also there's been a, as you say, a connection to the international community and a lot of support that the organisation has given to international responses to oil spills all over the world.
JD: That's absolutely right. “International” was in the name from the very beginning. Our two wildlife centers that run year-round are both in California. We also have a turnkey facility in Alaska serving that state, but the organisation has responded to spills, I think, it's somewhere around 235 incidents around the world thanks to a partnership with IFAW based in the UK, we were able to do a lot of international spills fully 10 years ago or so. We're hoping to actually fill the gap that was created when they stepped out of that work in the coming years because I think what comes next is going to be more complicated. Fortunately, there are more organisations like the members of GOWRS and others who have sort of taken up the charge of developing Oiled Wildlife Response expertise. But the next big spill is quite likely to be in a place where none of us is actually based.
Paul: It’s a good point, and it's a good segway to talking about some of that international collaboration because, as you say, International Bird Rescue's been one of the partner organisations in the multi-year Global Oiled Wildlife Response System Project. So from that perspective, what do you see is one of the most significant achievements of that initiative of the work that that group has been doing over the years?
JD: Yeah, you know there, there is a lot of diversity among the organisations - universities, non-profits, for profits. But I think one thing we all share is (that we have) very high ambitions that are always outstretching our resources. While we all knew each other, I don't know that any of us had sat down on this level and been able to really come up together with strategies, Most of us had worked together many times over, but the idea of building a road that makes that stuff easier that you don't have to solve it ahead of time. The tightened relationships can do nothing but good. What really excites me is that here is ten organisations plus Sea Alarm providing guidance. What does it look like when there's a hundred of them? And how does the core of what we've built make that possible so that expertise is built in a place like Nigeria where a lot of oil is being moved around and maybe there isn't even an oiled wildlife rehab well developed there so how do those things come together? So I feel like the collaboration, the partnership, the good spirit, that this has allowed us to work on is really the most valuable thing.
Paul: I think that's a really important point. I mean, you're talking about the collaboration between these ten organisations and Sea Alarm. And ultimately, there's this wider intention too that overtime there is this outreach, this consideration of organisations that don't have that expertise, and how this network of experienced organisations can support and enable those organisations.
JD: Yeah, I lean into the history of Jay Holcomb, my predecessor, who I know you knew very well. The idea was go to a place, leave the expertise, leave the knowledge you know, share what you know, get people on a path, and honestly, there are organisations that exist that are as strong and stronger than Bird Rescue now because of that legacy. I think of Aiuká and all the influence of Jay and Valeria spending so much time together. I see her operation when I go to visit and I'm in awe of how incredible it is and what would it look like to have that in another country? What does it look like to build that experience all over the place so that people can clean up when something goes wrong.
Paul: Yes, absolutely. It. It's very much that Tier 3 force multiplier effect in inaction in that sense. It's a really important piece. Building on that, why do you think making this transition from GOWRS as a project to actually being a funded service is so important for Wildlife Response Preparedness?
JD: Yeah, I think I alluded to this a little bit. The diversity of our models we’re all stretched by something. International Bird Rescue is stretched by the fact that we see somewhere around 4,000 to 6,000 individual birds come in every year. Tri State has the addition of songbirds and mammals. We all have our core business. It is difficult to invest enough to keep moving the needle forward where we're always working on preparedness. But the idea of being able to focus on it and to know that the value is there, the investment is there. We are facing a generation change, really a lot of the folks who were doing this work in the beginning have retired out even most recently on GOWRS, we've had a few changeovers of folks who, after a long, worthy career, have made the decision, you know, to focus on fishing and retirement and that needs to happen. How do we bridge the gap that remains? How do we make sure that there is always going to be people on the growth path, becoming the next sort of big heroes of wildlife response? It can't be on a few key people anymore. It's got to be something that becomes kind of an industry of its own. This investment, this formalisation, I think, allows that depth of bench and succession planning, so that when all the folks who've been doing lots of spills and the number of spills goes down or have retired, those that remain will actually still be able to do as great a job, or even better because of all they've learned.
Paul: Yeah, it's such an important point. I know Chris Battaglia brought this up on our last episode as well and I think you know it's that key question of how to preserve in a way this knowledge and an appreciation that people don't necessarily have that that's quite fragile in the sense that organisations that perhaps have not had that consistent funding and involvement, there's that risk that this knowledge will literally die out at some point.
JD: Yeah, and I would say that one of the challenges here which is even different from oil spill response generally from wildlife response is that the funding usually is considered a bit more discretionary. There are places in the world where it's required to have an oiled wildlife specialist on contract in case of a spill, but that's not unanimously true. This kind of spending is often the investing in animal organisations is usually the thing that is the first to go when oil prices go down, or there's a bit of pressure as we've all seen with the pandemic. Yet, you always want these organisations to exist when when there are emergencies. I think this is this is the whole point of this. This system we're building is something where this can become sustainable. Those of us who have been doing it for a long time share and hopefully bring up others. I feel really committed to that side of it because I think it's the history of what Bird Rescue has done and I am excited to see what does the Angolan version look like or what does the Laotian version look like? How does this grow and develop building local capacity but also with all the learning that's gone through the years.
Paul: So, I asked you about Wildlife Response in terms of the funding - what does it mean for preparedness. What would getting this funding mean specifically for your organisation?
JD: For International Bird Rescue the organisation's current resources get eaten up very easily by wildlife rehabilitation. And we think it's important it's a testing ground. It's how we train up a lot of our new responders. You know, there are people who work and live day-to-day in the clinic aspects. This commitment would actually allow us probably to add staffing, deepen our bench, actually invest in more of that global preparedness work. As I said, the margins are slim. The economics of doing water bird rehabilitation are not great. This is not a thing you do to make a lot of money. It's a thing you do to make a difference and this organisation would benefit from having that additional commitment that would allow us to build up even more on the preparedness side. I would really love to continue building outreach to other countries that don't have any involvement at this point.
Paul: Well said. Let's hope we can continue on this journey of getting it funded. And as we continue our journey of introducing people to some of the partners of the project, our next partner featured on this podcast is going to be the Oiled Wildlife Care Network so could I just finish off by asking you to say something that you particularly admire about the Oiled Wildlife Care Network as a segway to their interview?
JD: Yeah, they are a perfect partner for us to be asked about because we work very closely. Together we actually co-run the two facilities in California and Jay Holcomb, who I mentioned earlier and Mimi Would-Harris, a couple of our staff, were intimately involved in the early stages of what would become the network. I think that what's so amazing about OWCN is that they've taken the rigor and resources and wherewithal of the university system and brought it into something that was nonprofit-led, sort of limping along. You can't really get to a scale without connecting into bigger levels and things and Mike Ziccardi specifically getting involved with NOAA and other aspects of government agencies in addition to state agencies, other universities, etc. The level of collaboration and the ability to build a system that creates more responders, I think that's really incredible. I do admire it very much. The fact that we're one of now, I think 45 plus members in that network shows this capacity to kind of build something that is more lasting than one organisation can do on its own.
Paul: Great, well said and certainly look forward to speaking with them next time. But JD, certainly really appreciate your time, especially given that you've got a response going on at the moment as well. Any last comments or thoughts you wanted to share just before we close?
JD: Just that this is such a great moment and opportunity for what is probably a low investment for the big picture. You end up with a sustaining growing network of knowledge that deepens not only the field of those who were already in it, but actually brings more people on board. I'm pretty excited by that, and I hope that next year's Effects of Oil on Wildlife Conference 2022, which we’ll be helping to host, will actually show some of this really directly, so excited. And thank you for involving us, Paul.
Paul: No, that's great. Well I look forward to the conference next year and yeah, wish you and the rest of the team all the best with the with the tern response at the moment. And again, thanks for being with me today. Thanks, JD.
JD: No worries.