SORAC Otter Advocates Survive a Gauntlet Just to Volunteer.
SORAC otter advocates survive a gauntlet just to volunteer.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Cheryl McCormick’s calves harden and her triceps tighten as she trudges up three long flights of steps, clutching buckets filled with dense rocks. When the 39-year-old prospective Sea Otter Rescue and Conservation (SORAC) volunteer reaches the top of the stairs, which are tucked behind the scenes at the Aquarium, she must hike back down, step by step, if she wants to begin to prove herself worthy of carrying out SORAC’s mission: to protect the sea otter, rehabilitate injured ones, to research, understand their environment, and educate the public.
“People may think it’s all about petting and hugging sea otters, but it’s not as glamorous as portrayed,” McCormick says. “It’s tedious work. All people see is the end result.”
Debbie Keller, SORAC volunteer and training coordinator, says she tries to prepare the potential volunteers for these demanding duties of the job up front.
“Rather than getting to work with the [sea otters],” she says, “I tell the volunteers they are the butler, the maid, the sushi chef.”
The rocks in the bucket are intended to simulate the live clams, crabs, or mussels a volunteer would carry to the otter tank at the top of the stairs around feeding time. While the volunteers take the stairs, the otters ride up in an adjacent elevator.
Just to be considered as a volunteer, McCormick and the other prospective volunteers will also have to lug around dummy otter carriers, repeatedly douse their arms in icy salt water and learn to calculate complicated dietary combinations over the course of a two-day tryout. After that, less than half are selected. Those qualifiers will then be eligible for more night classes and weeks more training; only after that will they be eligible to donate five-plus hours a week for one year, on shifts that can start as late as 6:30pm. In a county where most everyone professes sea otter adoration, and during a Sea Otter Awareness Week that invites more people to care, these locals stand out.
After the stair-feeding test, the next challenge mandates that the prospective volunteers strap on a metal welder’s helmet and a black Star Wars-type cape, which serve to cover the entire body to protect the wild sea otter’s fragile psyche. Each prospective volunteer then partners up with another SORAC hopeful to lift a dog crate stuffed with a 70-pound sandbag up several steps before lifting it four feet higher. Task three—still on day one—requires that each shoves a hand in a bucket of numbingly-cold water to grip raw squid guts and clam tongues to confirm the potential volunteer’s capacity to stomach similar tasks.
There are tougher duties to tolerate, however. Day two, after shadowing a SORAC worker and learning mathematical feeding equations (in simplified terms, three pounds of shelled clams or mussels equals roughly one pound of edible flesh), trainers ready the applicant for unique SORAC-specific situations. They range from the surprising, like respecting the otter’s gnarly biting capabilities (“They break clams like marshmallows,” McCormick says, “their jaws are huge.”), to the haunting: preparing for the death of a sick sea otter.
Out of the 50-plus participants who attend, only 20 are chosen. SORAC announced the results of the most recent semiannual tryout earlier this month, days after the participants’ performance.
McCormick waited anxiously for word—and then heard from SORAC on a Thursday afternoon. “I made it,” she breathes. “I could not be more excited. Tomorrow is Friday. If I didn’t make it the whole weekend would be shot.”
Not that her work is finished. McCormick and her other 19 qualifiers, currently titled “apprentice volunteers,” still need to complete four night classes, attend a hands-on shift, then complete six more weeks of training before their volunteer coordinator reviews their progress to decide whether to extend an invitation to become a volunteer. That’s “volunteer,” McCormick says, “with a capital ‘V.’ ”