Enjoying The Snow. Part III: Dressing The Part

It would be a few years after that magic August evening when I first saw both a seal and a crazy-seal-lady that I would once again see a seal in the summer. Only this time, I would find myself acting like a crazy-seal-lady.

By this point I had the camera which I had decided I wanted that night, and also a big, bright orange backpack to carry my supplies. It was hard to recognize the change in my own behavior because I had not morphed into a seal-lady proper; rather, I had become a bizarro, reverse crazy-seal-lady. Instead of running up to strangers to tell them to get away from seals, I would run up to them like a crazy person to show them seals. Of course, I encouraged them to keep their distance, but mostly because I assumed they would be thrilled to see the seal come up out of the water and on to the beach so they could enjoy it, just as I would. It turns out though that this type of crazy-seal-lady behavior, however well-intentioned, can be equally offensive in practice.

As I would discover, plenty of people couldn’t care less about an adorable seal visiting the Island. And plenty of others are at best annoyed, and at worst downright hostile to anyone suggesting where they should go, what might be of interest to them, or what they should do with their freedom on the beach, even when presented in a spirit of fun, generous sharing. That was a shocking discovery for me.

Yet still, I can kind-of understand. When the snow owls visit Holgate, a place I visit almost daily, I will often see visiting strangers frantically waving their arms in their excitement, trying to get my attention to show me a snow owl I’d seen every single day for over a month. Amazingly, even though this is very sweet of them and something I can totally relate to, I’ll confess that my initial, subconsciousness reaction is often one of annoyance. How dare they try to show me my own animal? Who do they think they are? I’ve been comin’ here my whole life!!!!

I remember one morning following a seal down the beach at a distance, gleefully pointing it out to early morning walkers who happened by and asking them to give it some room. About an hour later I was lying in the sand photographing it when a woman came up behind and startled me, saying “You know, maybe it’s you scaring the seal away by chasing it down the beach with that big orange backpack.” She then proceeded forward and promptly flushed the seal back into the water. I don’t think her analysis was accurate. A big, white backpack, one which looks like a polar bear, is what would scare a seal back in the water. But it does not matter, because at the time I wouldn’t have been able to heed her advice anyway…. I was too busy thinking, “Who does she think she is to tell me that? I’ve been comin’ here my whole life!!!!” And so it appears that at least some of us are capable of being both a crazy-seal-lady and an annoyed, fantastically entitled beach-goer; even on the same morning.

The beach is a dynamic and chaotic environment. It is a difficult place to control. This is particularly true when trying to control or influence the interactions of humans & wild animals. The animals are wild and we humans can demonstrate, quite unpredictably, odd mixes of apathy, interest, aggression, enthusiasm, recklessness, joy, annoyance, and entitlement. Many wildlife management professionals who get tasked with the woeful errand of babysitting endangered creatures in public places will tell you there are good days, and bad days. Sometimes it is the public who is a little off, but sometimes, it is the manager who loses the patience or the focus it takes to create positive outcomes that both help the animal and lead to a positive experience for the people in such chaotic and unpredictable, and often urgently dangerous, situations.

My greatest pleasure on this journey has been having a few opportunities to observe some of the great masters of wildlife management in action protecting wild animals on public beaches. And while we can be sure it happens to the best of them sometimes, I have yet to see one come off like a crazy-seal-lady. I’m still not sure if this is something they teach in wildlife management school, or is something passed down in a kind of guru-disciple relationship through the generations, or if these people just have the particularly perfect, innate disposition, and that has led them to excel in the field of wildlife management. I have certainly seen and heard stories of less experienced wildlife management professionals come off as brash and abrasive and entitled themselves, exhibiting many of the stereotypes that make the average beach goer so wary of environmental stewards in the first place. Yet there are masters of this woeful errand, and I have consistently observed both an extremely strong sense of deep integrity and a relaxed, ready-for-anything, open-minded understanding of other people in the great masters that I believe is, in part, a secret to their success. And these masters also have an additional Ace up their sleeves: Authority.

I would learn about the value of speaking with authority quite accidentally, thanks to my big, bright orange backpack.

One day my daughter came down to the beach and I told her that she, sadly, had just missed a seal. She decided to take a walk south and try to find it. After an hour had passed, I decided to go look for her. When I found her, she was sitting alone in the sand. “Did you find the seal?” I asked. “Yes, it is over there!” and she pointed to a large group of 40 people tightly clustered in the middle of the beach about 100 yards away. “What are you doing over here?!?” I asked, puzzled. “I heard it is bad to go within 50 yards of a seal. I didn’t want to get too close. And I don’t know what 50 yards is.” I had long ago become wary of interference and being the crazy-seal-lady. But this scene was so ridiculous, and she was so sincere, I was compelled to approach the group and set a good example.

“You should back up and give the seal at least 50 feet of space.”

A man in the group immediately puffed out his chest, glared at me angrily, and asked incredulously, “Says who?!?!”

“The Marine Mammal Stranding Center,” I stated quite simply, as a matter-of-fact.

I will never forget the look of guilt on the every person’s face, and how quickly they scrambled to back up. I suddenly saw myself as they saw me: standing tall, massive camera lens & scope, and my big, bright orange, very official-looking backpack.

They though that I was The Marine Mammal Stranding Center. And they obeyed. This was an epiphany. A year later I received a New Jersey Osprey Project shirt as a gift. While I love the Osprey Project, what I love most about this particular shirt is that the NJ Fish & Wildlife logo is emblazoned on the breast. It is no accident that I consistently choose to wear this particular shirt whenever I am visiting a habitat where I am likely to be compelled to help intervene on behalf of an endangered animal in a public place.

While this was an epiphany, cos-playing as an authority figure can also backfire. I was once sitting with the Piping Plover family at Barnegat Light State Park when a couple with an off-lead pitbull wearing a pink bandana came into the endangered species area. Even at a distance, the dog sent both the PIPL family and the nesting Oystercatchers into terror and chaos, as dogs always do. I quickly approached the couple and told them they had to get the dog out of there. They insisted it was a service dog and that they had permission. But they did not have their papers and the dog was not suited properly, wearing only a pink bandana, so I was insistent. They argued, but I explained that there were local, park, state, and federal laws protecting the area and that it was the worst time for the dog to be there. They left.

When I returned the next morning, they were waiting for me, with a properly uniformed park officer, screaming angrily that I was a photographer out there “posing as a federal officer” to get better shots and should be arrested. That’s debatable. I posed as nothing. But I did proudly wear my NJ Fish & Wildlife logo-shirt, as I always do, in hopes people like this will draw their own (incorrect) conclusions and I do make a best effort to know the laws, regulations, and fines applicable at sensitive habitats I visit for such instances. It turns out it was a service dog, they did have permission from the park, and the Americans With Disabilities Act does override almost every other law relating to endangered species. But they needed to carry their documentation, admitted that they were actually there to swim the dog, and after a half hour of showing them the damage the dog was causing, we became fast friends and they vowed to never bring their dog to the Park again during the nesting season. “But it’s a service dog” reminds me very much of the “But I live here” excuse. Those excuses don’t get you off the hook; they in fact give one a far greater responsibility for using good judgement and setting a good example; and far greater responsibility for truly understanding the laws and what is at stake when they are broken, even with permission.

The fact that we have laws, rules, and regulations to add some order to the dynamic and chaotic world of the wild beach can be a bummer when we are feeling entitled, but are actually a welcome a relief to anyone ever put into a situation where they saw a bad scene that required action. In the gray area of the extremely subtle dynamics of the beach, the world where crazy-seal-ladies and entitled beach-goers can be equally dangerous, they give us something firm to grab onto; a place to center our decision making, and our actions. While costumes can help deliver the message, and give confidence to the weak-minded like me, what is truly effective is having some integrity about the true nature life on the beach, and understanding the real value of the basic laws governing wild animals who live there, and realizing our very basic duty to support them when we see they are being broken.

You don’t need to dress the part but you can certainly imagine yourself in a position of authority when you are compelled to intervene in an uncomfortable situation. Because the truth is we all have the responsibility and therefore the authority to point out the law to people violating it, especially when wild animals are in jeopardy. And we all have the responsibility to learn the compassion it takes to do this effectively, instead of acting like crazy-seal-ladies and triggering the entitlement defense. Learning to do this with the grace & success rate of the great masters of wildlife management is the difficult part. But there are all kinds of beach goers, enthusiasts, photographers, birders, and others who witness clear violations of important laws protecting wild animals and just keep quiet, and we must all work to change that.

I know this because, oftentimes, I am one of them, haunted by the annoying, counter-productiveness of the crazy-seal-lady, and knowing the irritating wrath of the entitled. I’ve been both of those things times. I’ve dressed all these parts. If you have ever witnessed wild animal cruelty and just kept your mouth shut for fear of being cast as the loony or simply not having the energy or time to deal with some person who will most likely respond hostilely to you, know now that this is the worst part to cast yourself as.

We must encourage ourselves and we must encourage others, just as I am encouraging you as a simple way to encourage myself, to dress the part of a much more fun, more fulfilling, and far less barbaric future.