Animal expert and SeaWorld Animal Rescuer Jody Westberg shares her achievements as an animal carer for SeaWorld.
How did you get your job as an Animal Rescuer at SeaWorld?
My first introduction to SeaWorld’s rescue programme was a history making one, both for me and for our park. SeaWorld was rehabilitating an orphaned baby California gray whale name J.J. that was found stranded on a beach near Los Angeles in 1997. Saving J.J. and nursing her back to health was a monumental undertaking and an around-the-clock job. I was already working in the park’s Penguin Encounter, and was brought over to assist the rescue team with J.J.’s rehabilitation. It was during this time that I really got to know and understand SeaWorld’s commitment to this programme. It wasn’t just about rescuing, rehabilitating and returning this one whale to the wild; it was also about making every effort to learn about this species, so that efforts could be made to conserve the California gray whale population and the ecosystem they live in.
Why did you want to work for SeaWorld?
I grew up in South Dakota, a state in the middle of the U.S, and nowhere near an ocean or marine life, yet I became interested in marine animals from a very young age. Shamu has a very long and inspiring reach, and my parents took our family for a vacation to SeaWorld when I was 11 years old. They knew I was interested in marine wildlife, and this trip, seeing the animals up close and personal sealed the deal for me. When I grew up, I was going to work at SeaWorld San Diego, no ifs, or buts about it!
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Marine animals have really only been scientifically studied for about the last 50-60 years; so providing care for them is still an ever growing and evolving science. This is actually another part of the job I love. I work with an incredible group of people to provide the best care for the animals that live in the park and those we rescue. Working together, learning about these incredible animals and being able to listen to each other’s ideas, is what I think ensures these animal get the best care possible.
What is the best thing about your job?
The variety and the ability to give ill or injured marine mammals a second chance at life. Every day is different. I never know when I come in if I am going to spend the day rehabilitating sea lion pups, trying to get an orphaned seal to nurse from a bottle, or be called in the middle of the night to rescue a dolphin that has stranded on a local San Diego County beach. I do this side by side with an amazing group of people that aren’t just my teammates, but really my heroes.
What is your biggest achievement in your job?
I think it will really be hard to top being part of the team that spent nearly 15 months rehabilitating J.J., the California gray whale calf and ultimately returning her to the ocean. A baleen whale had never been rescued, rehabilitated and returned to the wild before, nor since. And the only team that possessed the knowledge, or know how to even attempt something like this was SeaWorld San Diego. This achievement set me on the path to not only be a part of the rescue program, but to continue that commitment to wildlife and conservation efforts in both in my professional and personal life. It really continues to have an impact on me.
What is your favourite animal to work with and why?
Hands down California sea lions! I just love them! I think this comes from the fact that the majority of animals we rescue are sea lion pups. When we rescue them off of the beach they are usually severely malnourished, lethargic and emaciated. We will call them pajama pups or a bag of bones, because their skin is so loose and just hangs off of them. We then spend a lot of time and energy -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- returning these animals to health. Then to see them return to health, be active, compete for fish, socialize with other pups and then reach the goal of returning them to the wild, has really endeared them to my heart.
What motivates you?
The next generation, and giving them an opportunity to be inspired like I was as a child by our oceans and marine life. We rescue a lot of animals annually that have been impacted by ocean debris and pollution. I hate the fact that sometimes the only reason I am rescuing an animal is because of human-related actions. For example, it’s not unusual for us to rescue seals, dolphins, whales and even birds that are entangled in fishing line that has been tossed over the side of a boat. Or even worse, gaffed or shot by someone. Or a sea turtle that I rescued that was impacted from eating candy bar wrappers and plastic that had washed down a storm drain and found their way into the eel grass that the turtle feeds on. I love being able to talk to park guests, especially the kids, about the choices they make every day and how I see that come back and impact the animals and the environment we all live in. I like to talk to them about the simple daily choices they can make to have a positive change.