On October 29th, 2004, I was placed under arrest for misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Before you jump to conclusions, it was not for the reasons you might think. I was living in Corvallis, Oregon, and was participating in a Critical Mass protest ride when our not-so-critical mass of 20 people was swarmed by police cars and forced to get off our bikes and onto the grass of an unsuspecting residents’ lawn. The police told us they had received reports of a ‘bicycle gang’ that was terrorizing the streets and shouting obscenities at children, neither of which was true of course. We were actually dressed in costumes and shouting ‘Happy Halloween!’ to kids we saw along the way. They released us on our own recognizance, but we were going to have to appear in court at a later date. Why tell you this? Feeling the need to flee town, that was the day I applied for the DSO position at the Aquarium of the Pacific (AoP).
When I started at AoP, I had only worked as a DSO for academic and non-profit research organizations. I considered myself a scientist (or scientist-in-training) and I knew science when I saw it. Full disclosure: I had participated in discussions at AAUS symposia about how aquarium and zoo diving was not scientific diving. After all, I hadn’t been diving in aquariums for science and it sure seemed like commercial diving to me from the outside. Two years prior at a legal panel, I had heard Val Hodges say ‘we selectively remove invasive species from exhibit windows’ and secretly rolled my eyes. When I took over from Capt. Pete Pehl, the Aquarium had one scientific collaboration with Cal State University Long Beach through the AoP Marine Conservation Research Institute. This, to me, was at least ‘legitimate’ aquarium science and by the time I departed the program, we had grown to 19 collaborative projects with a half dozen universities in Southern California and were teaching two-week intensive scientific diving classes for staff and volunteers to get involved with those projects.
But it was the interior operations where I received my ‘scientific versus commercial’ diving education. It was not what I expected. And not just at AoP, but programs across the country. Nearly every aquarist, mammalogist, aviculturist, and curator that dives as part of their staff or volunteer position has a background in recreational and scientific diving training. The staff at most organizations hold degrees in science fields, including animal husbandry, and have extensive scientific knowledge of their organisms and their exhibits. Volunteers bring a broad scope of diving and non-diving skills and expertise and receive training directly from these experts to observe and collect data. Whether for institutional knowledge or as part of a larger collaborative effort with other zoos and aquaria, the routine feeding of these organisms and the maintenance of their exhibits advances the science of animal husbandry. Entering any exhibit for any reason requires training and expertise to maintain human and animal health while inspiring the next generation of ocean stewards. I hope all of these words and phrases sound familiar. They are the letter and spirit of the scientific exemption. The 5th Circuit Court agreed. I hope you will, too.
To finish the earlier story, three were underage riders and received a plea bargain to do community service. The other 17 of us had to appear in court as a group and defend our actions. Even in conservative Benton County, the judge knew the officers had overstepped and all charges were dismissed. At 16 months, my daughter has already attended five protests for hers and others’ rights. She’s a real chip off the ol’ block.
University of Washington