The Man…The Myth…The Legend?

I am not sure if anyone really knows which Curt Clumpner is, but the discussion/debate would be fascinating!

The OWCN has been blessed to have Curt as part of our history since the beginning – first as part of a Member Organization, later as a core component of our Management Team – and celebrated his retirement at the end of October with mixed emotions. To honor him, I thought I would delve a bit into our history, or at least my recollection of it, to give thoughts as to the important role Curt has played in making what the OWCN is today.

Curt in his earlier years

I first met Curt in the late 90s (1990’s, not 1890’s – yes, we are old but c’mon…) during a very busy time with spills in California. In fact, it was so busy I cannot recall which spill it was – Cape Mohican in SF in 1996, or Ballona Creek (Long Beach), Santa Cruz Mystery Spill, or the first Pt. Reyes tarball event – all of which occurred in 1997. What I can definitely recall was how we collectively responded at that point; immediately racing to the scene with little beyond our own personal gear, linking up on scene with International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) and OSPR staff in the OSPR mobile vet rig, and transporting birds to rehab either to the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, to the MWVCRC facility in Santa Cruz, or to the IBRRC facility in Berkeley. Neither the LA or SF Bay facilities had been built yet; just a glimmer in the eye of Jay Holcomb and Jonna Mazet.

Curt escaping the wash room for a brief moment in 1999

The IBRRC team were rock stars of spill response even at that time – consisting of a core IBRRC staff of Jay, Dee Goodfriend, Flo Tseng, regional staff (such as Curt for the Pacific Northwest and Barbara Callahan for Alaska), and other responders that came in during spills. Jonna and Dave Jessup led the charge, and Scott Newman and I fit in as response vets as needed. Jay had a larger-than-life personality, driven by his total devotion to seabirds, decades of experience, and a habit of not being afraid to make his opinion known. As IBRRC’s Director, he was right more often than he wasn’t, and most of us took our leads from him. However, not all of us…

Curt in the washroom at the Prestige spill, 2002

For those of you that know Curt well, you know that he has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and has the habit of asking for facts and written documentation to support one’s decisions or opinions. This is a tremendous quality in a scientist, but often an exasperating one when on the receiving end of the query. I have always appreciated it (well, almost always…), but it led to Curt being one of the few people who was willing to call Jay on key decisions. As a spectator in some of these, er, spirited conversations, it was amazing to me that two of the most knowledgeable, experienced responders I knew would bring such passion and dedication to their views on the best way to rehabilitate the birds in their care.

The IBRRC/IFAW team during the Prestige spill in Spain, 2002

As the OWCN matured, key IBRRC staff continued to play key response and readiness roles, with Flo, Dee, and Curt playing critical roles for the OWCN during training activities and the construction of the LA and SF Bay facilities. Even at that time, Curt was never satisfied with the “standard” way to provide training content – continually tweaking his methods of conveying information (including timeless stop-motion animation videos using plastic children’s toys), exploring new info from sources throughout the world, and pushing trainers to be as good as they can be (including asking questions of you during trainings that you had no idea what the answer was).

Curt asking an embarrassing question to Dr. Ziccardi at the OWCN Basic training in Arcata, 2001 (Extra points for pointing out the three future OWCN staff – other than Curt – in attendance)

After the Cosco Busan oil spill in 2007, the OWCN was officially given the mandate to lead capture activities during spills in California. In addition to hiring Recovery management staff, one of the first things we needed to do was to formally create bird capture protocols to begin to train new recovery personnel specifically for those roles (previously capture was part of the general basic trainings, but we weren’t technically the lead for the activity). Curt was the first and only person we considered to help develop this key document for us due to his experience, knowledge, and interest in the topic, and this (plus its associated training efforts) became a key part of the evolving readiness program for Field Operations.

Curt showing proper unoiled raptor handling techniques at an OWCN Recovery Training

Similarly, when a further expansion of the OWCN occurred in 2014-2015 due to inland expansion and the concept of separate Care and Field steams (each which was led by a Deputy Director) was envisioned, I was shocked when Curt expressed interest in the Care position. That initial inquiry was possibly one of the greatest compliments I can recall regarding the value of what we had created to date in the OWCN; the fact that Curt, an internationally-known expert in oiled wildlife response, was willing to relocate from Astoria, Oregon (a place he truly loves) to Davis to be part of our program was a true testament to his willingness to “put his money where his mouth was” to help take an excellent program and make it even more so.

Curt and the field team for the Refugio oil spill in 2015

From Day 1 as a UC Davis staff member, Curt pushed the envelope. He pushed himself and others to question WHY we did things and HOW we could do them better. He and Kyra completely re-imagined the training program to provide better tailored information at each of the different responder levels (and for those of you fortunate enough to take the Oiled Wildlife Specialist training on Cleaning, you know the depths of detail he embraced). He also took the lead role in championing and creating the concept of a field-based facility centered around Western Shelter structures and ancillary support trailers; lessons he learned well from other regions in which he worked. He was tireless in the pursuit of finding new potential members of the OWCN that could add to inland care preparedness. Last, he was a fierce advocate of integration of technology whenever possible to spill response activities, capturing the fine details of animal care that may have been previously not recorded or noted.

Curt giving instructions to participants in an inland full deployment oil spill drill in 2017

Curt is truly deserved of his official retirement from the OWCN after his active involvement since its inception – particularly after the last 5 years of focused efforts on Care activities. However, for those of you who know Curt, we also know he won’t be resting on a beach somewhere sunny but exploring new volunteer opportunities focused on his devotion to seabirds. He also has agreed to remain on the OWCN response team should we need him!

Curt in his happy place!

So, cheers to Curt for everything that you have done for the OWCN past and present!


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