Paul Kelway, Wildlife Preparedness and Response Manager at Oil Spill Response, interviews Chris Battaglia from Focus Wildlife in the US and Canada in the second in a series of interviews with wildlife response organizations 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 organizations that have been collaborating on this.
You can watch the interview below or read the transcript below.
Paul: This month I'm joined by Chris Battaglia from Focus Wildlife in the US and Canada. Chris is co-founder and President of Focus Wildlife and has been actively involved in oiled wildlife response since 1988. Beginning with the Exxon Valdez in 1989, Chris has participated in wildlife response efforts at oil spills over 90 times nationally and internationally.
Chris, great to see you and thanks so much for chatting with me today.
Chris: Great to see you too, Paul. Thanks for having me.
Paul: So I guess the first question I had was to ask you to introduce Focus Wildlife, a bit about the organization, the mission, and where and how do you carry out your work?
Chris: Yes, so Focus Wildlife International. We have two companies. There's Focus Wildlife International, there's Focus Wildlife Canada, and the idea is that basically, we're providing wildlife response and preparedness services to government, industry and NGOs. I think just to elaborate on that too, we founded Focus Wildlife; I founded Focus Wildlife with my wife, Lana. That was a while back, as well; she had the original idea to bring professional wildlife response back to the Pacific Northwest. She grew up in Vancouver and was the Wildlife Director of a small rehab facility on Vancouver Island and always felt like there was a need because there were always oiled birds and no mechanism or system to deal with these birds.
And so, she came down to California to get the expertise from International Bird Rescue there. And that's how it all got started. And then eventually, we ended up here in Washington, basically providing that service of professional wildlife response. I think, probably elaborating on that, what that means is before it was all NGOs [small wildlife rehabilitation organisations without oiled wildlife experience]. So there's a spill; the industry is looking around for who can take this oiled bird and basically dumping it somewhere with whoever is closest.
Most of these organizations have no clue how to deal with that from a safety perspective. The expertise of protocols and how to actually manage oiled birds. I think it was important for us to talk to industry to understand their needs. I think there's always been an idea that it’s about just washing birds, and we wanted to get beyond that. We wanted to show industry in the sense that there is more to it than just OK; we got an oiled bird, wait until we get that, and then we start to rehab the bird, that's it.
There's a whole lot more to it than that. So for that, I think industry also got more comfortable with us. Or with that approach because we adjust with our clients to what they need. And we start with doing an assessment. I think that's what's very important too. We have almost like a stopgap. OK, we go out. We look. We come back. We tell them OK, this is what we see. This is what we should be doing.
Maybe there are no birds there. Maybe there are 50 birds, ten birds. So that was a very important aspect of it, having a process in place that they could understand and wrap their heads around it. And then obviously yes, there is planning, emergency plans, training, there's a whole lot that goes into that.
Paul: It's a good point that people often think of wildlife response., they think of one specific aspect. But we're talking about a much broader range of activities that are integrated into oil spill response. Is there a story of a response that you've been involved in, something that gives an idea of how Focus works and what that wider sense of wildlife response looks like?
Chris: We're currently engaged in a response to a ship that went down in the 60s and started leaking oil. It's like a 400 foot plus oil or pulp carrier. And interestingly enough, with all the people there, oiled wildlife response, all they can think of is the big tanker spills. I think that Valeria pointed out in her interview as well that they mostly do inland work, their pipelines, refineries, all that good stuff. It's not necessarily just the big tanker spills. So there's oil coming up, and the service that we provide for them right now is planning; we do emergency planning for them. There are no oiled birds per se at this stage. The significant part of this is deterrence. That's sort of making sure that if anything happens birds don’t get into the oil. We are collaborating and working for the Canadian Coast Guard.
I think it's just the whole aspect of it's not just the little tiny thing of OK we wash birds. This is like a whole bunch of other things. We've been on the water for almost five months, providing our own boat by the wreck for doing assessments. We're looking at birds; how many are in the area. But at the same time, back home, two people write the wildlife plans for that – the so what happens if? Preparing in case something happens.
I think that kind of encompasses the work. It's not just that. Because of what we know, the team members on-site too we have the expertise, for example, to give booming strategies, advise what's better to do or how can we make sure that oil does not impact the wildlife. It's not just about collecting. We also want to protect as well. So we have that expertise too. It's far more than when we just started, and we just washed a bird, so to speak.
Paul: It's really informing some of those broader strategies so that those wildlife considerations are right at the heart of that as well.
Chris: I think, the client in a sense, understands. I think it always kind of starts off: OK yeah, we have oiled wildlife. I mean, it has obviously gotten better and better over the years since when we first started, but that's at the forefront. And also, it's hard for people or clients sometimes to understand if when wildlife is impacted, it's at the forefront. It's there. Immediately, if you look at all the spills, what's on the front page of the newspaper, you get your oiled bird.
Fairly or not, that's what's there. And to make everyone understand that while it is such a significant part of it, I think, all things considered, for industry if you look past the name of you or your client, you're dealing with people who care about wildlife too. It's not like that they don't. They do. Everybody does at the end of the day. And so kind of finding that and tapping into this and making sure that at the end of the day, that wildlife response gets their just billing, so to speak.
Paul: That's really great, you are obviously talking about that professionalization of it over time, that it's become more and more recognized and integrated.
With that in mind, and just in terms of international collaboration, Focus has been one of the project partners in the multi-year Global Oiled Wildlife Response System Project. A lot of that has been about how to better integrate wildlife, not just in one country but internationally. What would you say is one of the most significant achievements of that initiative of actually getting these leading organizations together and really looking at international response?
Chris: Well, I think first and foremost have to say, we are talking about GOWRS in particular, but I also think kind of go back and look how it started. I think for the people involved, there's a lot of the same thing as with us; when we first started out, there's a lot of tenacity there. Remember Hugo [Nijkamp] coming to visit us here in Washington to talk about the concept of GOWRS and you and Sea Alarm and Saskia [Sessions-Puplett] and all that. And then obviously Rob Holland as well.
Just having actual people there that could push this project forward. Without that, nothing will happen. I mean, we talked about this before. Specific individuals have to be in place for this to happen. And also having that bridge like for example Rob Holland, the bridge from, the wildlife organizations to industry. He definitely provided that; without that, we wouldn't be anywhere near where we are now. He provided it from the very get-go, kind of figuring out who actually should be part of it. Now we have the ten organizations that are there. I think you provided us with an opportunity to collaborate, come up with, as Valeria pointed out, the protocols, which is huge, sort of the standards. The standardization of wildlife response.
That's in itself. Eventually, people actually pull in the same direction, I think. And also, that industry sees that as being professional and we have something to offer, and hopefully it will continue.
But like I said, I think huge thanks has to go to, I guess, at the very beginning to Hugo, Sea Alarm and obviously OSRL as well.
Paul: When you're talking about next steps and sort of the next frontiers, I think that we're at this place now where we're hoping to transition from this project phase into GOWRS actually being a funded live and operational service. I think that speaks to that integration that you're talking about. So yeah, it's a question. I think there's two parts. I think the first part is why do you think that's so important for wildlife response and preparedness specifically?
Chris: I think it's hugely important. I think that's where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. I guess it means contingency in the sense that we actually can go on. I think we're at the point we are incredibly thankful for how we got here. But now we're at the point where we have to grow. And unfortunately, there has to be funding for that.
I mean, yes we have four people that make-up an assessment team [from a pool of experts from the global network]. This is not just something that, like maybe in the good old days you know some volunteers you can bring in. We say we are professional but being professional that means you have to bring qualifications to the table, and we all know this is not just some ad in the newspaper saying GOWRS needs assessment team personnel.
There's a lot of experience that goes into it, so I think that's the one step, and you can't do that without funding or even retaining personnel. And I think, more importantly, we're very committed to what we do, and we want to do this for a long time, but there has to be some people to follow in our footsteps.
And you can't do it this without something to offer them? Yes, we would really like you to get involved in this work. But there's nothing there. There's no funding mechanism, and maybe you find somebody that will do this out of the goodness of their heart.
But if we want to be professional, that has to be at the forefront of our minds. How are we going to bring people in? Once we step away, and I see this in Washington for us as well as an organization, if you look back right, all of us have sort of started at the same time, we all talk about Treasure spill [South Africa, 2000]. That's like what two years ago! No.
But then you look and that whole mechanism of bringing people in and out during these big spills, Erica, Prestige, them all. If you look, everybody is like Valeria and me, you, we all started, and it was like 10, 15, 20 years ago, and then there's a void, and I think GOWRS can provide that too if we have the appropriate funding. Otherwise, industry will lose us, eventually. We can't show up at these spills with our walkers. We have to have fresh blood in there.
Paul: It's such an important point. And as you say, the good practices are defined. But you need that continuity of knowledge. You need those people who have built up that experience and can really pass that on to that next generation, as you say. I guess with that in mind, the second part of that question is then: what would getting this service funded and transitioned to a service mean for Focus Wildlife?
Chris: I think it's the continuance in terms of bringing in personnel as well as recruiting more personnel or retaining personnel. Or being able to recruit people that have the potential. They might not have the experience we bring to the table, our little war stories from the Treasure and Erica spills and all that. But at least bringing know-how that we can adapt to our purposes, e.g. booming strategies or all that. You have to be able to recruit. And that's for me is important as a small organization I can't do that without funding.
Volunteerism only goes a certain way, and nowadays, it's not just recruiting; there is liability insurance. There is vaccination. There is international travel and all that. This stuff doesn't work anymore by just kind of calling up somebody that you know - a good friend of mine who's really good at this and maybe can help. You have to be professional. If the funding at least provides the structure, there is the possibility to do that and be able to continue this work for a long, long time.
Paul: That's very well said, and you say it really does have a huge impact. We will keep working on that going forward. So finally I think this is just the last question to end on. We're doing this as a monthly series, so our next organization up in the series will be International Bird Rescue. Another partner in the GOWRS project. Can you say something that you particularly admire about International Bird Rescue?
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. First, can I go back and thank Valeria for her kind words and what she said about us.
So yes, I want to say thanks, Valeria. Obviously, Valeria and I, like all of us, have worked together for a long, long time, and like she's pointed out, the collaborative effort, I think that's important with her as well. We remember the last time we worked together was the Swans of Rotterdam, and you and I had the conversation about who to bring in. She was sort of the first one that actually came to mind because of her dedication and the obviously professional know-how she brings to the table. So thanks Valeria.
So International Bird Rescue. It's an organization that we all sort of cut our teeth with and gave us the start. They have been around for, well, they are the first. And I think they put world wildlife response on the map. I think it's also their tenacity to push things, especially in California, after Exxon Valdez, using the momentum I think that's important to establish certain things like the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.
All this obviously plays together, but I think that's my biggest thing in terms of when I think of them, what they have done for the Oiled Wildlife Response Community in general. Like all of us, they have come a long way, but then, particularly if you look about, when I first started out there, the little building in Berkeley, CA and then moving up to Cordelia, CA and all that.
Paul: Great, well said, I look forward to speaking with them next month. Anything else just to wrap up final thoughts or reflections?
Chris: Thanks for the opportunity again. Since this is about GOWRS, I am very thankful for the people who have started this, and obviously, I think OSRL in particular and Sea Alarm and you and Hugo and all those involved. You know, for basically getting us where we're at.
I've always said that there's the idea, but it also needs certain individuals or the right individuals to do that, and I think we have that in place.
And yeah, I'm excited that you are at OSRL now as well and hopefully, we can continue the good work.
Paul: Thanks so much Chris, appreciate you being with us and wish you all the best with wrapping up that response in BC as well. See you again soon.
Chris: See you again soon. Bye Paul
Focus Wildlife - https://www.focuswildlife.org/