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Erica Cirino

Above, an Eastern screech owl hatchling in New York, revived from near-death after falling out of her nest

By Erica Cirino

‘We are all fragments of the Earth’s collective imagination. From our perceptions of other beings and of places, we create ourselves. From our perceptions of ourselves, we create the meanings of our lives.’         — scrawled in my notes atop a cliff in Grimsey, Iceland, while watching a young puffin preen

The UN’s Global Assessment Report  released on May 6 made something ecologists have been saying for years and years even more clear: Earth has an invasive species problem, and that is humanity. We are taking over land, sea, air and space at an unprecedented pace, and with painful consequences for all other life on this planet we share with eight million other species. 

One million of these other eight million species are directly threatened with extinction due to our ravenous consumption of “resources” — the living and nonliving components of the Earth we choose to exploit — in addition to our straight-up takeover of space. Nonhumans probably classify us as a scourge. Rightly so. 

Above, an Eastern screech owl hatchling in New York, revived from near-death after falling out of her nest

More than 7.3 billion humans are alive today. Less than 80 pygmy three-toed sloths are left in Panama as humans clear mangroves — sloths’ habitat — for farming. There are probably fewer than 10 tiny porpoises called vaquitas alive in the Gulf of Cortez today because humans have been illegally hunting a fish called a totoaba with gillnets that catch and kill nontargeted marine mammals, including vaquitas. 

The world’s last northern white rhino died in Sudan in 2018 after a surge of poaching for rhino horn wiped out the entire species. Insects — which, while they can be pesky when buzzing in our ears or landing on our food — serve as part of the foundation of both terrestrial and aquatic food chains and pollinate the plants we rely on for survival but are dying off due to our intensive use of pesticides. 

The seas are being emptied of fish to feed our growing, and increasingly hungry, human population as tiny and toxic particles of plastic increasingly permeate the marine food chain. The skies are emptying of birds, which are increasingly growing disoriented and crashing into buildings in our brightly lit cities filled with tall skyscrapers. Nonhuman terrestrial animals are being forced to live in shrinking habitats as we clear land, head for higher latitudes thanks to climate change, and off the coasts where rising seas encroach. 

Yet, humans continue to take over the world. I find this fact quite difficult to cope with. 

An Atlantic puffin in Grimsey, Iceland

I am a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who has worked with sick, injured and orphaned nonhumans for more than 11 years, since the age of 15. I believe wildlife rehabilitation is not a solution to conservation issues, but simply a way to help individual nonhumans get a second chance at life, because humans have made life on this planet very hard for other species (and also our own species). It’s a small way to help right some of humanity’s wrongs. 

But when I turned 22, frustrated by all the human-injured wildlife that passed through my hands (shot by BB guns, poisoned, abducted, abused, hit by cars, smashed into windows), I stopped working in the clinical setting and moved to the world of photojournalism. It was my attempt to enlighten humans to the plight of nonhumans — to offer facts, to help our species perspectivize and perhaps empathize — so that maybe some nonhumans would be spared from a destiny of harm instead of needing a rehabilitator’s help. I continue to rehabilitate a few nonhumans every year, because I empathize with them, I know about their natural lives, and I know how to give them first aid. 

 While humans are more than surviving on Earth, we are not exactly thriving: About one in 10 people in the world do not have enough food to live a healthy life. More than 300 million people in the world — including children — are depressed. Climate change is stressing the landscapes people rely on to survive, fueling disease, malnourishment, conflict and migration. If all of this sounds really horrifying, well, it is. But if you think we have it hard, try to imagine how the nonhuman animals must feel, with their world being taken over by just one species: us.

One patch of plastic-covered beach in Rawai, Phuket, Thailand

Animals must reproduce to survive. But humans have already proven that they can do that. Why do we reproduce more than we need to to hack it as a species? A lack of empathy? Pride? Is it something that happens when a human being is so full of confidence about oneself that they believe they should make a reflection of it? Or perhaps it is something that happens when a human being desires the opportunity to live vicariously through a blank canvas that they themselves can paint, can create, to right the wrongs that their parents  —  or maybe their parents-parents  —  made when raising them.

It’s clear we lack empathy, not only for other species but for our own. We are so individually focused. Why have such a strong drive to procreate when the survival of our species in this world is easy, virtually guaranteed? Why not focus on elevating the lives of the less-fortunate humans, and less-fortunate nonhuman beings? Why not use the energy we spend procreating elsewhere, like volunteering to reforest the planet or pick up plastic trash or feed hungry people? Yes, giving birth may fulfill a human’s primal desire to create, but at what costs for the entire world?

Approaching Húsavík, Iceland, by sailboat on an expedition to study the effects of mass tourism, fishing, whaling and plastic pollution

I have always wondered why we celebrate the birth of a human baby, but why there is no champagne and no cries of joy when the duckling hatches from an egg, when the she wolf delivers her pups, when a neonatal shark swims from a pouch. In raising and healing wildlife, I lay no claim. I try, in a very small way, to restore the proper balance of nature, rewilding the world by setting its nonhuman children free.

 As a wildlife rehabilitator, I do not get congratulated each time I set an animal loose into the unforgiving arms of nature. I do not get cries of sympathy when an animal dies in my hands despite my attempts to resuscitate him or her. I do not get the same kind of pride out of raising a baby animal to adulthood as many people do when they raise a baby human. I don’t see a reflection of myself in the peeping owl hatchling or chattering baby squirrel, despite the fact I’ve spent painstaking days and nights, for weeks or months, feeding and cleaning these creatures.

And I don’t need to see that reflection. We are not all the same species, but I do feel that the wildlife and wild places of the world are a part of me. Though humans and nonhumans are separate in DNA, I believe we are still equals as kin on this Earth. We must get out of our own heads to empathize with nonhumans. We must prioritize the raising of all species, not just our own.

Erica Cirino is an international science writer, artist, award-winning photographer and licensed wildlife rehabber. Visit her website at www.ericacirino.com/speaking for a list of free upcoming lectures in Suffolk County. 

All photos by Erica Cirino

Microplastic scooped from the surf off Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, where there seems to be more plastic than sand. Photo by Erica Cirino

By Daniel Dunaief

Erica Cirino sails the South Pacific to cover the story of microplastic pollution in the oceans with Danish sailors and scientists. Photo by Rasmus Hytting

A specialist in investigating plastics pollution, Erica Cirino recently shared an email exchange about her concerns over a growing environmental threat. Cirino, who earned a bachelor of arts in environmental studies and a master’s of science in journalism from Stony Brook University, is a Kaplana Chawla Launchpad fellow at the Safina Center. A guest researcher at Roskilde University in Denmark and a freelance science writer and artist, Cirino is also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

How significant are plastics as a source of pollution in the oceans? Is the problem becoming more pronounced each year? 

Plastics are a significant source of marine debris, entering the oceans at an estimated rate of 8 million metric tons per year. However, experts don’t have a great idea of exactly how much plastic is entering the oceans because it’s so hard to quantify once it gets in the environment. 

What can people on Long Island and elsewhere do to help prevent plastic pollution?

When it comes to preventing plastic from getting into nature, including in the oceans, reducing one’s use of plastic is most certainly the answer. There are many recyclable products on the market, but these only encourage the use of more plastic — and then there’s the actual act of recycling that’s necessary for the plastic to be reused. 

To reduce your plastic use, you should make use of reusable containers such as bags, bottles and food boxes, ideally made from natural materials like wood, metal or glass. Hard plastics can be reused, but they do release small particles of plastic into the environment, particularly when washed. 

You should also pay attention to your clothing labels, because much of our clothing today is made from plastics. Opt for organic cotton, bamboo, wool and other natural fibers over plastic-based polyester, nylon and acrylic. Every time you wash synthetic plastic-based clothing, thousands of tiny plastic pieces wash off and into the wastewater system. That’s not good because water treatment can’t remove plastic (yet) and it goes directly back into the environment. 

Has recycling helped reduce the problem in the oceans or landfills?

Based off of production, waste management and pollution data, experts estimate 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastic have been produced to date, and only 9 percent of that plastic has been recycled. The vast majority has been tossed in landfills or littered into the natural environment. 

Above, a deceased herring gull surrounded by plastic litter on Venice Beach, California. Photo by Erica Cirino

How has plastic affected individual organisms and ecosystems? 

In the oceans, plastic breaks down from intact items into microscopic pieces over time, from weeks to months to years. Because there are so many different sizes of plastic in the oceans, wildlife is affected in different ways. Large pieces of plastic may injure or entangle larger animals like whales and sea turtles, while the tiniest pieces of plastic may block the digestive tracts of microscopic marine crustaceans. What’s more, the tiniest pieces of plastic (microplastic), while they sometimes pass through the guts of the animals that eat them, often contain toxic chemicals they’ve absorbed from seawater. Animals that eat microplastic tend to accumulate high levels of toxins in their bodies that can cause disease, behavioral abnormalities and even death. 

Where do plastics that wash ashore on Long Island originate?

Based on my years of walking Long Island’s beaches, I can tell you the plastics that wash ashore along the Sound tend to come mostly from New York City and Connecticut. For example, I once found a message in a plastic water bottle that someone had sent from Connecticut, according to the note inside. The note also contained a phone number and I lightly scolded the person who sent it off for tossing a plastic bottle into the Sound. But on the South Shore and the East End, there’s a lot of plastic that comes in from far off places via the Atlantic Ocean as far as Europe and Africa, even. 

What are some of the positive steps you’ve seen individuals and/or companies take to address the plastics problem? 

There are individuals doing things large and small to address the plastic pollution crisis. Some examples include the formation of beach cleanup groups, political mobilization and pushes for legislation to reduce or prohibit use of plastic items like plastic bags, expanded polystyrene food containers and plastic bottles. Others have created companies that reuse cleaned-up plastic marine debris to make clothing and other items. But the issue with that is that microplastic will shed off these items. I think the most effective efforts revolve around community projects and political action to address the core issue: which is using plastic. 

Are there any popular misconceptions about plastics?

The biggest misconception is that recycling is a solution to the issue of plastic pollution. 

Is there a plastics message for consumers, companies and policy makers that you’d like to share on Earth Day this year?

Let’s rethink our fast and hurried plastic lifestyles this Earth Day and think about all the problems we’re causing by using fast, easy and cheap plastic. If we love nature, we need to do more to preserve it, and that involves a less consumeristic lifestyle. Let’s value the things that really matter, like friends, family and community.

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