WHEN Donna Carey first heard about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and its drastic effect on wildlife, she went through ``all the emotions everybody goes through'': First, sadness. Then, anger. ``You're upset and mad at everybody who let it happen.'' Finally, a sense of helplessness sets in, she says, because you think there's nothing you can do to help.
``But actually, I wasn't helpless,'' Ms. Carey adds. For once, here was an emergency ``where I could do something.''
She could help save sea otters.
As director of animal care at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Carey has degrees in animal science and experience working with animals - mostly rodents and rabbits. With one phone call, she signed up with the Oil Spill Response Volunteer Center in Anchorage, Alaska.
On June 24, three months after the spill, Carey was lugging a stuffed backpack and a duffel bag full of camping gear to the airport, and bracing herself for the unexpected.
``I knew I was going to Seward, Alaska, but that was it,'' says Carey. After 13 hours of traveling, she arrived at the Sea Otter Rescue Facility.
For two weeks, Carey worked alongside several dozen volunteers, plus a paid staff of 35. The Exxon-funded rescue center consisted of several trailers and outdoor pens filled with pools of recirculating sea water.
Carey reported for work each morning at 5:30. During her six-hour shift, she worked in the ``critical care'' area, where the otters were taken after they had been cleaned of the life-threatening oil.
``If they weren't eating, I'd actually go in with tongs and hand-feed them to get them going.'' Restaurant-quality seafood - king crab, sea scallops, clams - was the fare.
``I was put on husbandry, because I had experience working with animals. A lot of the volunteers had no experience at all, so we would either train them, or they'd work in food-prep, laundry, or cleaning.''
During Carey's stay, oil-covered sea otters were being captured in nets off the southernmost shore of the Kenai Peninsula, some 200 miles from the original spill in Prince William Sound. They were airlifted by helicopter to Seward.
``By the time we'd get them, they were so stressed out we couldn't do anything with them,'' says Carey. The otters, weighing from 60 to 75 pounds each, ``could be pretty vicious.'' The animals had to remain alone in wooden crates overnight, before being examined by veterinarians.
When Carey first saw some of the otters, she could not tell they were oiled. ``They just looked wet. But the oil gets into their inner coat, and that's what does the damage.''
Unlike seals or sea lions, sea otters have no insulating layer of blubber. They rely on their luxurious, thick fur for warmth. But when oil gets in, ``they just can't keep warm. Many were dying of hypothermia,'' says Carey. Others had ingested the oil.
After tranquilizing the otters, workers lathered them up with detergent and water, working the suds into the fur with their fingers (Dawn dishwashing liquid removes oil the best, says Carey). Animals would be washed and rinsed until the oil was gone.
Next, they were taken to the drying trailer. A team of four or five people, wielding long air hoses connected to the ceiling, worked meticulously for over an hour on each otter, drying every bit of fur.
In the ``critical care'' area, the otters would become conscious again. Carey took notes every 15 minutes on their behavior and appearance. When an animal improved, it was placed with other otters in increasingly larger groups. With each move, they would gradually take the number of people away, says Carey.
Of the 190 otters treated over a four-month period at Seward, 160 survived and were released, says director Jim Styers. That's not many, considering there are about 15,000 sea otters in the path of the oil, and 950 have been found dead, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Department, which oversees the rescue effort.
Despite the 85 percent recovery rate at Seward, ``every animal counts, and when you do lose one, it's hard,'' says Carey.
She remembers one particularly trying day. A mother otter had given birth at the facility. She was very ill, and couldn't take care of the pup, so she was trying to drown it. When the baby was taken from her, both animals screamed so loudly that everyone in the whole facility suddenly became silent.
``The mother finally stopped screaming and went into this haunting wail every 30 seconds,'' says Carey. ``Nobody could talk. That's one sound you will never forget.'' (Mother and pup were doing reasonably well when Carey left.) Her ``up'' times, when the animals would begin to eat and run and dive, were more frequent. ``Sea otters have got to be one of the cutest animals I've ever seen,'' she says.
Carey knew of fishermen who found a baby otter drifting alone in the water. They picked it up and discovered it wasn't breathing. ``One of the fisherman gave it mouth-to-mouth [resuscitation], and brought it around,'' says Carey. ``They delivered it to the otter center ... and that little guy, when I left, he was running all over the place!''
All the babies will go to aquariums, says Carey, because they have been hand-fed and would not be able to survive in the wild. ``But at least they're going to live.''
Carey worked daily with people who impressed her with their willingness ``to do whatever they were asked to,'' no matter how dirty or wet the job. She met volunteers who were doctors, lawyers, real estate brokers. Most of them had no previous training. Some came from as far away as Maine, South Carolina, West Germany, and Australia. Carey, like many volunteers, pitched her tent in a neighboring campground and cooked her own food.
The trip was expensive. But Carey was fortunate to have her $650 air fare paid through donations from the Sierra Club and friends at the university. Even the 11-year-old son of a faculty member pitched in $10. ``It's nice to know there are that many people who care,'' she says.
Now that she's back home, Carey has a bounty of memories - and slides - to share. She had never been to Alaska before, and the snow-covered mountains and abundant wildlife were more breathtaking than she ever imagined, she says.
``It was kind of like Disney World without any fences! You'd go out into Resurrection Bay and see the seals out there playing,'' along with otters and puffins. Caring for the sea otters ``was exciting,'' says Carey, ``but you know, it was more exciting when I saw them free out in the bay.''