Mr. Curtiss Clumpner is truly an icon in the oiled wildlife response industry. If you’ve been around long enough you’ve probably heard the phrase “all you need is Curt and a tent”. As a co-member of what I’d lovingly call the “Old Guard” I thought it would be interesting to highlight the history and motivation behind his singular career. This year he vacated his position on the UC Davis OWCN Management Team, so I thought he might finally have time to answer some questions. Neither Curt nor I are saying he’s retired. He’s just entering a new phase of his career. I hope those who read this blog find it interesting to get a fuller picture of what drove Curt to enter the profession, how he kept himself prepared and motivated to continue working in such a challenging field, and what his plans are as he begins Act II.
WM: What and when was your first spill response?
CC: My first “response” was the Whidbey Island Mystery Spill in Washington in 1984. I had started a Wildlife rehab program at PAWS in Lynnwood, WA a few years earlier and I volunteered at the center that was set up at a junior high school in Mukilteo and then we took some of the birds to our center. It was managed by another rehab organization. And I must admit in those days we did not know much about oil spills in Washington.
Whidbey Island Mystery Spill
Whidbey Island Mystery Spill
WM: What about spill response attracted you?
CC: Being a wildlife rehabilitator 365 days a year one of the most attractive things about spill response was that there was a start and an end. But it really came down to being one of the people who could do something when disaster struck. I wanted to be doing something not watching others. I have that reaction even in situations where I don’t have skills or training. I thought I should at least learn to be useful rather than the well intentioned volunteer under foot. Also the first spills were very chaotic and not very successful because of lack of knowledge and preparedness. I thought I could help change that.
WM: What was your favorite spill response and why?
CC: I think Punta Tombo Mystery Spill in 1991. In Argentina, unfunded, and asked to help by Dee Boersma who was working with Magellanic Penguins at a research station there. The initial team was Ken Brewer and me and later included Patty Chen-Valet and Chris Battaglia. Favorite because it was in Argentina, we were working with a new species, we had few resources, (we made a center out of a shipping container on the beach), we worked with some great students of Dee’s, and we had to essentially apply what we knew then which was not very much.
Punta Tombo Mystery Spill 1991
WM: What sacrifices did you make to have a career in emergency response?
CC: I think all wildlife rehabilitators sacrifice a lot to care for sick and injured wildlife. Long hours, little pay, the emotional toll of animals dying in many cases because of humans. With oil spill response you add being ready to go at a moment’s notice, not knowing when you will be back. It makes relationships and other commitments very challenging.
WM: How difficult was it for you to decide to leave your response job with OWCN and retire?
CC: It is always a big decision for me to change my life and retirement is the ultimate CHANGE. In work at least it has always been easier because I have left when I felt confident that the people taking my place have better skills to improve the profession of oiled wildlife response than I do. I was lucky when I left PAWS to have Jeanne Wasserman and Dr Flo Tseng ready to take the wildlife program at PAWS beyond what I ever dreamed. I think the same thing is true at OWCN. I know that all the teaming with the Member Organizations who are dedicated to making the OWCN greater than I could imagine. I will never really feel fully retired and hope to work with all the great people in oiled wildlife response again some time if the skills I can help.
WM: Would you follow this career path again?
CC: I often think about what I might have done different. I often thought about going back to school to learn more and be a better rehabilitator, but the time never seemed right. I feel incredibly lucky to have been in the right place at the right time so many times. I got to work with inspiring dedicated people around the world doing something I believed was important. I got to meet, work with, and learn from the pioneers as well as current leaders of wildlife rehabilitation and oiled response around the world. I can’t think career I would have rather have.
WM: Do you plan to respond now that you are retired and why?
CC: I hope to. I hope to keep learning about wildlife and use the skill I have to continue to be involved in any way I can to support wildlife. I am lucky to be healthy in mind and body and want to “enjoy every sandwich” as they say. Working or volunteering in oiled wildlife response, wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife field research, whatever I can find that is interesting and worthwhile. I am currently doing some part time planning work for OWCN and helping Deborah Jaques with her non-profit Pelican Science in monitoring brown pelicans along the West Coast, but I still dream (literally) about responses. Only time will tell.
I am very thankful to all of the people I have worked with over the years and those who have supported my endeavors. I have learned so much from every one of them and have enjoyed the adventures we have all had together around the world.
I personally would like to thank Curt for his partnership on so many oil spill responses. We spent many long conversations (a.k.a., arguments) discussing ideas to improve our capabilities and care for wildlife better. We’ve always shared a passion for this field, and I count it a privilege to have so many great memories that include Curt. He’s been a treasured advisor and I’ve learned so much from him through the years. Thank you Curt!
Why title this post Curt and a Tent? Way back when, while discussing what’s needed to respond to oiled wildlife, an oil spill response organization actually asked why wildlife responses require pre-existing facilities because “all you need is Curt and a tent”. Those of us involved back then have never let him forget it!