When I was about nine years old, I decided to save the whales. I wrote up a petition and collected over 500 signatures from my neighbors (this was before the Internet, when 500 signatures meant a solid two weeks of canvassing). I sent my petition to my senator and got a hand-written response and an invitation to the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute to learn more about conservation. It was thrilling to feel like I’d done something to help the animals I loved the most, and to be recognized for my passion and desire to help. I’ve mentioned this project here before because it was the first time I ever stood up for something I believed in. It was the moment in my life when I realized that activism is possible for anyone, even for nine-year-old girls, and that every one of us needs to stand up for animals because they can’t stand up for themselves.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may know that I love it when the name of an organization embodies its mission. First, it just makes sense. I know exactly what to expect. Second, it’s a smart marketing move. A brand is only as good as its name. Earthwatch is a perfect example of good naming in action. It is an international non-profit organization dedicated to environmental research. With scientists, citizen activists, volunteers, students, and educators, Earthwatch works to improve scientific understanding: to monitor populations, protect threatened species and fragile habitats, and research the impacts of climate change. They use their knowledge to inspire change by working with local communities to support human populations while they protect wildlife and endangered ecosystems.
When I was a young girl, I lived in Kenya. I spent long days at Masai Mara game reserve, a massive wildlife park (and popular tourist destination) where the animals roam free. I watched the lions sleeping in the hot afternoon sun; the gazelles, fleet of foot and on the watch for cats; and the zebras swishing their tails, a black and white tangle of shivering flanks. The boars rammed each other in the tall grass. A herd of elephants circled to protect a single calf. As the sun started to set, the nocturnal animals emerged: the hammer-headed fruit bat; the aardvark with its long snout and shuffling gait; the bush baby with wide, staring eyes and a whip-like tail; and the civet who’s musk is used in the fanciest perfumes.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a biology student. I volunteer with a wildlife conservation organization in my area and spend a lot of time with biologists in the field. A few weeks ago I was chatting with a career biologist—a man who has spent the past thirty years working with endangered species. Somehow the topic of climate change came up, and I was flabbergasted to discover that he doesn’t believe in it, as if it weren’t the overwhelming scientific consensus. It illustrated something I’ve long understood: that a person’s political views (he is a staunch conservative) can dramatically affect his opinions, even when he should know better. None of us wants climate change to be real. We all want to cling to a memory of a time when we weren’t so profoundly afraid for our planet.
I’m a biology student working on completing a few requirements before I apply to graduate school, so for me wildlife volunteering is the most attractive volunteering option out there. I’m very sensitive emotionally, so I know working with sick children or in deeply impoverished villages is not the thing for me. I wish it was—I would love to work with people—but I know myself and I’d be a nervous wreck. Of course, working with endangered or imperiled animals carries its own emotional risks but somehow the disconnect—the inhuman eyes, the lack of a spoken language—helps me create an emotional distance. Also working with animals, especially in foreign countries out in the vast wilderness, has this Avatar-like new frontier appeal.