Empathy Intervention- Brenna Eikenbary

Up until yesterday I was having a difficult time trying to figure out what to say for my empathy intervention. I rarely dislike people and I could not think about an interaction in my daily life that could use more empathy. That was until yesterday. I was volunteering with the Marine Mammal Center in the late afternoon. We received a call about a sea lion on Avila Beach. After twenty minutes my supervisor found parking and I had located the sea lion under the bridge near the construction site. He was laying right where the ocean becomes a river. It was a sub-adult (teenage) sea lion that looked a little thin but had no apparent injuries. The seal likely weighed about 125 to 175 pounds but appeared alert yet lethargic. Sometimes seals will strand (return to the shore) just to take breaks or sun themselves but rarely will an animal choose to strand on a busy beach. There were likely about 200-400 people on this beach. However, upon initial assessment we decided it was best to try and encourage him to go back into the ocean and then if he comes back onto the beach we know there is something going on internally. We got him back in the water and he was swimming the opposite direction into the creek and then towards the ocean and then just lying under the construction site. From that behavior, we could determine that something was not right. Typically, in sub-adult and adult sea lions we see domoic acid toxicosis a neurotoxin caused by harmful algal blooms that affects the heart, lungs, and shrinks the hippocampus in the brain causing memory issues, disorientation, and erratic behavior. Although a number of other illnesses can cause abnormal behavior. Of course, anytime we attempt a rescue or assess an animal it draws a crowd. We have to take these herding board which are long wooden boards with handles that we use to protect ourselves and to move animals safely. So, the minute we unload the truck people see the rescue boards from across the beach and come over to watch. We try to educate everyone when we are there about the fact that the animal is sick and it is stressful on the animal to be harassed, in addition to the fact that these animals are wild and can be aggressive so they will bite people and can transmit some awful diseases. Some people are very respectful about keeping a safe distance from the animal and allowing us to calmly access and work with the animal. Yesterday, however, was the most difficult day I have ever had with the general public. It was just myself and my supervisor working to get the sea lion out of the construction area and onto the sand so it would be safe for us to rescue, while keeping eyes on an aggressive sea lion we also had about twenty people trying to move closer and closer to the animal. The sea lion was in the end of the river almost heading to the ocean when a gentleman ran passed us, trudging into the water, and got within inches of the sea lion before the sea lion lunged at him. I thought in that moment I was going to see this gentleman get mauled. The man proceeds to go to the other side of the river laughing and taunting the sea lion. The sea lion now heads back into the construction area and the man returns to the main beach side. Then a couple minutes later the man barrels passed me as I am screaming “sir, sir” and gets lunged at by the sea lion again, this time the sea lion chases him out of the water onto the other side of the river. Now the sea lion so fearful to be in the river but afraid to reach the ocean climbs onto the construction area where he can be surrounded by people but we cannot rescue him because of the safety issue. So, we wait an hour with the public in hopes that allowing enough distance on the sand will encourage him to get onto an area that is safe for rescue. During that time, we were chasing after curious kids, begging people to keep a distance, watching person after person try to get a closer and closer picture or selfie. We had people coming up who said the animal let them sit next to him before we got there, or they were the animal whisperer and therefore should got up to him. It hurt me to see how much this animal had been harassed and I was angry. I was angry to a point that I was firm in my tone when responding to questions and I had a hard time positively engaging with the public because I think the anger was visible. We had to leave to tube feed a fur seal pup on site after an hour and a half and as we were leaving we saw people swimming up to the seal, kids racing towards him. I felt like I had failed him and I was mad that the public did not know any better, it took time driving back to the hospital site to reflect on my feelings towards those individuals and to implement empathy. I thought about the fact that many had probably never interacted with a wild animal except at zoos or aquariums, where taking photos and getting close to the animals is encouraged. I thought about how people saw others interacting closely with the animal before we arrived and saw no harm in doing the same thing because the animal was not aggressive with them. I thought that the gentleman was demonstrating his fearlessness to his kids without knowing the diseases and pain associated with a sea lion bite or the fact that doctors cannot stitch up the bite wounds because of the number of bacteria in a sea lion’s mouth. I thought about how people view animals differently than I do. I came to the conclusion that I know their behavior was wrong and technically illegal only because of the experiences I have had. I have worked with animals, specifically wild animals for years now and I think I take the knowledge I have for granted sometimes. I have to look at the situation without knowing what harassment of an animal entails, without knowing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and without understanding why an animal strands. When I thought about it that way I reluctantly but understandably forgave the people I had interacted with. I hope that I can work to better educate the public when I am out on rescues and exercise more empathy when I have interactions like yesterday.

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