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Bad news from the Tijuana estuary

The least tern says something ominous is coming

Chris Hutcherson holds condor's body while Jim Oosterhuis conducts chekup - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Chris Hutcherson holds condor's body while Jim Oosterhuis conducts chekup

This is how it happens. The little guy finds a fish. Not just any fish, but a special fish, with a special taste and special size. He shows the fish to the lady of his choosing. Sometimes she gets annoyed. Sometimes she's got someone she likes better. But sometimes she looks the guy over and waits for what comes next. So the little guy approaches with the little fish and he does a little dance. He swirls this way, and he swirls that way, and he holds the little fish in his mouth.

About 70 pairs of least terns nest in the reserve, up from about 21 in 1982.

Sometimes the lady decides that he’s a jerk and flies away. Sometimes she is charmed. She takes a few steps toward the guy. He takes a few steps toward her. Gently he slips the little fish into his lady’s mouth and she swallows. Can there ever be such happiness compared to theirs?

This is how love happens in the world of the California least tern, a small bird that zigzags through the air like a swallow and seeks out the sweet things to be found at the edge of the shore.

The brown pelicans nest on the Coronado Islands and come to the reserve to “loaf.”

When the female accepts the little fish, this constitutes marriage in the world of the least tern. Then they begin to build themselves a house. First they make an indentation in the sand, like a shallow bowl. Then they line the bowl with broken shells. They seek out shells and carry them to the bowl. They make a rudimentary mosaic with the shells. It’s not art, but it’s home. Soon the lady will be a mother. She lays two eggs, maybe four. There is excitement in the house of the least terns.

Birdwatchers at the Slough. Tijuana Slough is one of three Southern California refuges; the other two are Seal Beach and Sweetwater Marsh in Chula Vista.

Now let’s examine another scenario.

This time it’s a big guy, and instead of finding a little fish, he finds a little stick. Hut he too does his dance. He extends his dark wings, and they are huge. Maybe eight feet from tip to tip, maybe ten. He takes a few steps to the left, a few steps to the right. He raises his wings, and the tips curve forward like the tips of Dracula’s cape. Slowly he moves forward. Slowly his wings curve around the lady of his choosing.

Mike Mitchell: “Many people in Imperial Beach see no point in the refuge."

“Sometimes he’ll do it right then,” says Jim Oosterhuis, director of veterinary services at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and known by his colleagues as J.O. “He’ll walk right up the female’s back and balance with his huge wings. Sometimes she’ll be on a branch swaying back and forth, and he’ll be swaying back and forth as they have sex. It’s amazing, it’s beautiful.”

This is the California condor. Their nest consists of a few sticks on a cliff face. But they don’t have nests in the wild anymore. They have “condominiums” in the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Hut they might have nests again soon.

Mari von Hoffman: “I’ve seen a little chick lying dead in the sand with an oversized fish stuck halfway down its throat."

The California least tern weighs a couple of ounces. The California condor weighs 20 pounds. Both are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Although soon there may be no Endangered Species Act.

As a poet and a member of another kind of endangered species, I have a certain sympathy with endangered creatures. Three times I have received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts that I believe saved me from extinction. Hut there are differences. Not only between poets and birds, but between terns and condors.

Yearly, the sandpipers migrate from pole to pole and use the estuary as a “carbo-stop” on their long flight.

These particular least terns are found in the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, a 2531-acre parcel bordered on the north by Imperial Beach, on the west by the Pacific and the south by Mexico. The refuge makes up about 500 acres and is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which also administers 500 acres of Navy land in the reserve. On the southern boundary of the reserve is Border Field State Park. Then there is the U.S. Navy Auxiliary Landing Field wedged into the reserve like a filling in a molar, where helicopters practice quick landings.

The reserve is the largest salt marsh in Southern California. It is the only one open all year round to tidal flushing, a process sometimes called “nature’s kidneys,” in which water is purified by being swept back and forth through the marsh. This flushing is particularly necessary because most of the estuary’s 1700-square-mile watershed lies in Mexico, including Tijuana, with its 100,000 new people arriving each year. Tijuana produces far more sewage than can be processed by its wastewater system, and much winds up in the reserve.

Along with the least tern, 378 species of birds have been sighted in the reserve, including the Belding’s Savannah sparrow, the light-footed clapper rail, the least Bell’s vireo, the California brown pelican, and the American peregrine falcon — all of which are endangered species.

About 70 pairs of least terns nest in the reserve, up from about 21 in 1982. There are about 2000 nesting pairs of least terns in the state. They nest here, then fly down to Chile for the winter. This might seem like a lot of least terns, but these small birds deal with predators by mobbing and dive-bombing. Seventy nesting pairs of least terns produce a puny mob. Not even a rat would be frightened. And there is trouble with where they place their nests, a little indentation in the pickleweed, just over the dunes from the beach. Their chicks are cute, fluffy little things, like a hen’s chicks. It takes 20 days before they can fly. Unlike most baby birds, the chicks don’t take their food already chewed up by the parent and regurgitated. The chicks also eat little fish, whole little fish, not too big, not too little.

“I’ve seen a little chick lying dead in the sand,” said Mari von Hoffman, site manager at the refuge, “with an oversized fish stuck halfway down its throat. Sometimes there are no little fish to be found.”

If California’s least terns are an example of poverty in the bird world, then the California condors are an example of riches. The condors at the Wild Animal Park are part of a 20-year, $25 million project to increase their numbers and reintroduce them to the wild. The Condor Recovery Program began in 1979 when the existing condors were radio-tagged and their eggs taken to the Wild Animal Park for incubation and artificial breeding. When a mother condor loses an egg, she will “double clutch,” lay another within a month, which plainly increases the number of eggs that a condor can lay in a year.

“But they can be pretty clumsy mothers,” Jim Oosterhuis told me. “We’ve got videotapes of the mothers knocking the eggs out of the nest and sending them tumbling down the cliff.” Videos also show the mothers jumping up and down on their eggs.

In 1987, when it became clear that only seven condors were left in the wild, the decision was made to bring them into the Wild Animal Park. The condors are kept off-exhibit so as to be exposed as little as possible to human beings. The hand-raised chicks see only puppets that resemble mother condors. When old enough, they are put in one of ten huge wire-covered flight cages. These cages can be seen from the monorail on a hill high above the Asian plains exhibit.

I drove by the cages with Dr. Oosterhuis in his truck. A male condor rose up on its perch: as tall as a barstool, black, with a black ruff and a pink bald head resembling a scrawny elbow with a case of psoriasis.

“See him staring at us?” said Dr. Oosterhuis. Condors look at you sideways, one eye at a time. “They never miss a thing.”

This spring the mother condors were allowed to hatch one of their two eggs for the first time. Of the four chicks hatched in April and May, two are doing fine and two were killed, apparently accidentally, by their mothers. Even though the mothers are six years old. Dr. Oosterhuis suggested that they need more than the knowledge they may have genetically. Born and hand-raised at the Wild Animal Park, the new condor mothers lack older adults to show them what to do. But these new mothers are in the process of acquiring experience. Ideally, they will stop being clumsy and help educate younger mothers. All this is part of reintroducing an endangered species back to the wild.

The San Diego Wild Animal Park opened its doors to the general public May 10, 1972. The land in San Pasqual Valley, 30 miles north of downtown San Diego, had been acquired ten years earlier to house surplus animals and to breed larger ones. The park has 2200 acres, of which 700 are developed. There are 121 species of mammals and 285 species of birds for a total of 3200 animals. This includes 41 endangered animal species, 30 of which have been bred successfully at the park, including the Sumatran tiger, the South African cheetah, Indian and African elephants, a variety of gazelles, the Andean condor, and the California condor. Eighty southern white rhinos have been born at the park, and the species has been upgraded from endangered to threatened status. As many as 600 animals are born in the park each year. Some are kept, some are traded to other zoos, and some, like the condors and Arabian oryx, are returned to the wild. On the other hand, some endangered animals have no place to go. The cheetahs, tigers, and Indian rhinos are no longer welcome to roam in what had once been their natural habitat. Their future is to be kept in zoos and wild animal parks as display animals.

The Wild Animal Park supports itself on the admissions paid by the 1.4 million who visit the park each year. Food for the animals costs $50,000 per month. But other projects require special fund drives. For instance, in late May, the board of directors gave approval for a fund drive for a new veterinary hospital and research center. If all goes well, the hospital may be ready by the year 2000.

About 20,000 people visit the Tijuana Slough National Refuge each year, and perhaps 30,000 more use the beach. Tijuana Slough is one of three refuges that make up the Southern California Coastal Complex. The other two are Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge in northern Orange County and Sweetwater Marsh in Chula Vista, which also has a nature center. The coastal complex has an annual budget of $400,000.

As an urban refuge, Tijuana Slough has problems never experienced at the Wild Animal Park. For instance, there are cats and dogs.

“One day a woman came up to me and asked if I’d seen a mother cat and her kittens,” Mari von Hoffman told me. It turned out that the woman disliked having a cat box in her apartment, so she let the cat roam in the refuge, only coming home again to be fed. Then the cat had her kittens in the refuge as well.

“Cats are tremendously efficient,” said von Hoffman. “If left to themselves they would completely wipe out the clapper rails.”

Every year the people living near the estuary receive notice that it is illegal to let their pets roam free in the reserve. Cats and dogs are trapped and taken to the pound. Feral dogs and cats might be destroyed. Several times packs of wild dogs have crossed over from Mexico.

Another problem is illegal aliens.

“Until last October,” said von Hoffman, “we had up to a thousand illegals coming across from Mexico each day. Now it has been cut down to a trickle, thanks to Operation Gatekeeper.”

Gatekeeper is a new initiative to control the U.S. border and restrain illegal immigration. Run by the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it began October 1, 1994. Gatekeeper itself is only in San Diego County, but other states have similar programs. A Border Patrol spokesman called Gatekeeper “an ongoing operation which is here to stay.”

Until Gatekeeper, the illegal aliens were led safely across the reserve. Because they had to cross several streams, they carried changes of clothes in plastic bags. The foot traffic killed the plants, leaving a trail of muddy earth as wide as a dirt road. Employees at the refuge began to name parts of the estuary according to how it figured in the illegal crossing. The point of land before the last creek was called Underwear Point, because of the piles of underwear found on the far side. The creek itself was known as Bare Butt Crossing. The trees on the hill were the Hotel Trees, because people might stay under them for days. Refuge employees engaged in a practice that they jokingly called “trail shopping.”

“We’d find money on the trails,” said von Hoffman. “Wallets, some nice clothes, lots of ragged clothes. Most of it we put in the dumpster. The very best we sent to Goodwill.” Although the illegals have mostly been stopped, it has been at the expense of increased border patrols. Their boats cruise the inlets and channels, their trucks bounce across the dunes.

“I measured the tires on one truck coming within 12 inches of a nest,” said Michael Mitchell, refuge biologist. “We give presentations on the refuge at the Border Patrol musters in the morning, but their turnover is tremendous. They try their best, but it’s still a problem.”

Lifeguards also drive up and down the beach, which belongs to the State of California. The refuge proper begins at the dunes. At any time during the day, three or four helicopters can be seen in the air rising above the Navy airfield. There are also Border Patrol helicopters, U.S. Customs helicopters and Coast Guard helicopters.

“The birds don’t seem to mind the ’copters,” said von Hoffman, raising her voice over their noise.

Nor do the birds mind most of the trash that comes down the river from Tijuana.

“During a flood in ’93 we had a mass of refrigerators, tires, old shoes, plastic bottles, dead dogs, and lots of landfill-type debris.”

Almost wherever one looks, one can see semi-submerged tires and plastic bottles. The only harmful debris is old netting and the plastic rings that hold six-packs of beer or soda. These can entangle the birds.

“Anything you can imagine that people might do gets done down here,” said von Hoffman.

The refuge often has to put up with illegal collecting by scientists and collectors who come to snatch such creatures as the rare tiger beetle. Local residents occasionally change their motor oil by the reserve and dump the old oil in the marsh. Others dump old paint cans into the marsh.

But the greatest threat to the reserve has come from potential developers. The Helix Land Corporation began buying land in the estuary from the City of Imperial Beach and from private owners in the early ’60s. A new residential marina remained a strong possibility until Christmas Eve, 1980, when the Bureau of Fish and Wildlife bought the land from Helix.

“Helix made a big profit from selling the land,” said Mike McCoy, an Imperial Beach veterinarian who has been working for 25 years to preserve the estuary. McCoy and Jim Oosterhuis both began veterinary work at the Wild Animal Park as veterinary interns on June 1, 1970, but McCoy later decided to move to Imperial Beach.

“The reason I came to Imperial Beach,” he said, “was that big estuary. I’ve put my life into that place. My parents were real strong about having to protect the earth, and I’ve tried to do just that. The Wild Animal Park is a glorified zoo; the estuary is a totally natural area.”

Another argument against the building of a residential marina was the mass of raw sewage coming out of Tijuana. Now, however, a conventional sewage plant handling 25 million gallons a day and located on 26 acres just north of the Mexican border will put an end to the bad smells and raw sewage washing up on beaches. If all goes according to plan, the plant will be completed by February 1997. It will surely give an immediate boost to Imperial Beach real estate prices and make the area more desirable for development.

“The sewage treatment program also worries me because of the potential for huge freshwater inflows that could destroy the salt marshes and the estuary,” said Dr. McCoy. “But I remain hopeful. Nowadays businesses are under constant surveillance by the general public. It’s much harder for the forces of greed to pull the wool over our eyes.”

Yearly, the California least terns make their precarious nests in the sand. Yearly, the sandpipers migrate from pole to pole and use the estuary as a “carbo-stop” on their long flight. The brown pelicans nest on the Coronado Islands and come to the reserve to “loaf,” according to von Hoffman. As these birds lose their natural habitat, they fall prey to predators, both the human and animal variety.

“I would hate to see the least terns become display animals,” said Michael Mitchell, “and have the refuge become a least tern theme park. Population pressure can cause habitat extinction. If you take away habitat, then the predators win.”

The San Diego Wild Animal Park has had practically no problem with trespassers. Once a man jumped off the monorail but was quickly caught. Another time an illegal alien climbed a fence at night, went to sleep under a tree, and woke in the morning to find himself surrounded by giraffes.

But the task of releasing condors back into the wild has not been easy. Six were released last year in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, northeast of Santa Barbara. Not long after, one was found dead next to a puddle of antifreeze that it had apparently drunk. Another was killed when it flew into a high-power pylon. Then one day the police got a call from a frantic woman in Santa Barbara saying that a monstrous bird was eating the rubber weather stripping from her screen door. It and the other birds were recaptured, taken deeper into the valley, and released in an area not far from where President Reagan has his ranch.

“The trouble is that there are no birds in the wild to teach traditions,” said Dr. Oosterhuis. He went on to describe a program where they have made simulated high-power pylons, and when the condors in captivity land on them they receive light shocks.

“These condors have been riding updrafts up the side of a mountain for thousands of years," said Dr. Oosterhuis. “Now they reach the top and run into a pylon.”

Still, 10 to 12 more condors will be released into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary this winter and, ideally, as more are released, the birds will breed, although in the wild the female condor has only one egg every two years. Talks are going on to have more condors released in Grand Canyon National Park, as well as at Ted Turner’s ranch in New Mexico.

“But it’s not enough to concentrate on the single species,” said Dr. Oosterhuis. “We have to concentrate on the whole ecosystem. If the habitat’s not there, what are you going to do?”

In Sespe there are other endangered animals, such as the California kit fox, which benefit from the umbrella of protection given to the condor.

“No one’s going to buy land to protect the kit fox,” said Dr. Oosterhuis, “but the condor area will protect a whole lot of other species.”

“It’s the cutesy, high-profile species that get the money,” said Dr. McCoy. “But you can’t use the Endangered Species Act as a battering ram to save everything. We’ve created a backlash, and so we have to rethink how we do business over the world. Habitat protection and a shift in social and education priorities are needed so the public truly understands the problem. We also need a shift in the paradigm of what we are doing; growth mentality must succumb to the idea of a sustained yield. We can’t allow humanity to destroy the environment for short-term economic gain. The way we view our own species and other species — we’ve got to think of how we are linked together, not how we are separated.

The Wild Animal Park is a dramatic environment with elephants, giraffes, flamingos in settings that try to duplicate natural settings. The Tijuana estuary is not dramatic. A flat salt marsh with dunes and tidal creeks, it seems overshadowed by the Tijuana bullring about five miles away. But the closer one looks, the more complicated it becomes. The scale, however, is much smaller. Under a magnifying glass the tiger beetle looks fiercer than any rhino. The delicate, white, star-shaped flowers of the salt marsh dodder, lemonade-berry, and evening primrose, the sea lavender, and slender ladyfingers, and all the varieties of cactus create a complexity rarely seen in any other setting.

Mari von Hoffman pauses to watch a pair of least terns doing an elaborate dance through the air, chittering to one another. “I love how they talk,” she said. “I love all living things, but I think I draw the line at ticks.” She crouches by a growth of salt marsh bird’s beak, an extremely rare plant listed as an endangered species. The blossoms are white and violet with a little yellow at the top forming something resembling a bird’s beak. “These had been badly trampled by the illegals, but now they’re coming back fantastically,” she said, obviously happy. “It’s amazing how resilient these are if given a chance.”

I considered the matter of scale and remembered driving through the Wild Animal Park with Dr. Oosterhuis. He pointed across the valley. “Look at the big water buffalo. See how he’s watching us? I love it.” J.O. waved at the buffalo.

The differences between the Wild Animal Park and the estuary are the differences between a symphony and a sonata, a mural and a little watercolor. Even though Mike McCoy calls the Wild Animal Park “a glorified circus,” it tries to educate the public about the animals’ native environment. In the Tijuana refuge an interpretive center displays exhibits and offers literature.

“Many people in Imperial Beach see no point in the refuge,” Mike Mitchell told me. “One of our jobs is to educate them.”

It is amazing to look out over the salt marsh from the nature center and see how it changes from a bunch of weeds and water to become an infinite, multicolored variety of plants and wildlife. The only protection available to the least tern chicks is their ability to stand perfectly still and imitate the foliage, but looking really hard at the foliage one sees the complexity, sees the chicks motionless against the sand verbena. Then one sees a snowy egret and the delicate floating nest of the light-footed clapper rail within the cordgrass.

Still, constant pressure from developers and California’s population continues to grow.

“If the illegal alien problem goes away,” said Tom Alexander, manager of the Southern California Coastal Complex, “and if we get the sewage cleaned up, then we’ll get more visitors and more people who think Imperial Beach is a nice place to live. San Diego County so far has managed to have some open space. It has done a much better job than L.A., and that’s one of the things which makes San Diego so attractive.”

“The grazers and developers now call themselves land-rights people,” said Tom Hanscom at the Wild Animal Park, meaning they believe they should have the right to use the land in any way they wish. “We’re not the restrictors and deniers of freedom. We’re the ones who wish to conserve. True conservation is accommodation. The danger is Los Angelization. Who wants that?”

Recently, there have been increasing attempts in Congress to weaken and even repeal the Endangered Species Act. What would be the loss if all these endangered species disappeared?

Tom Hanscom argued that they may be useful in ways we are still discovering. He described how the Army used the California condor in biological warfare testing in the early 1940s. “They couldn’t kill them with any of the biological toxins, nor with botulism or anthrax. The condors have a tremendous immune system. There’s almost nothing they can’t eat. They hunt with their noses, and the deader something is, the better they like it. So perhaps the California condor holds the genetic key to improve our own immune system? As we stand on the threshold of new genetic engineering, will it be the condor’s genes that teach us how to develop antibiotics as the present ones become useless? Who is anyone to say that we can let condors die out because all they do is eat dead stuff?”

When I asked why animals shouldn’t be allowed to become extinct, at least half a dozen people gave me the example of the canary in the coal mine: that the sudden death of the canary warns the miners of the presence of poison gas.

“The danger to the least tern is telling us that something much more ominous is coming,” said Tom Alexander.

“The existence of these creatures is an indication of the quality of our air, land, and water,” said Mike Mitchell at the refuge. “We need them to see how we’re doing. It’s vital to the Pacific flyway to have places where migrating birds can stop and rest. All a developer has to do is get his hands on this land once and it’s gone. It’s not a matter of how much money you can make developing a piece of property, but the quality of life.”

“Fish and Wildlife has more land to manage than the National Park Service but has a fraction of the budget,” said von Hoffman. “Yet we’ve been cut back and cut back. Our whole point here is to have biodiversity, but that’s constantly threatened.”

“The effort to save the least tern is symptomatic of the effort to save the entire planet,” said Dr. McCoy. “It’s not just a matter of saving a bird here or a mammal there. We’ve pretty much destroyed the integrity of ecosystems that are eons old. When you do that, you destroy the integrity of life. In the 200 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve endangered human survival. It’s a disaster already in process. We have to look at the conditions that permit life, which means concentrating on the interlinking of all life. We have to rethink what it is to be a human being.”

I think again of the endangered poet and the function of art. In his essay “What Is Art?” the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote that art can evoke “reverence for the dignity of every man and woman and for the life of every animal; can make people ashamed of luxury, of violence, of revenge, or of using for their own pleasure that which others need; can compel people freely, gladly, and spontaneously to sacrifice themselves in the service of mankind.”

A work of art, such as a poem, also leads a person to ask what it is to be a human being. The function of the imagination is to let the mind travel out of the self and consider other lives. Imagination gives us the ability to empathize, and our empathy makes us realize that we are alone neither in our joy nor in our suffering. Our experiences are shared experiences. The arts and biodiversity show us about life. They educate us. They allow us to see ourselves in relation to the world and other people. To get rid of an art form, an ecosystem, to get rid of a species—each is a step toward getting rid of ourselves.

“You have to think of each of these animals as a unique creation, like a work of art,” says Jim Oosterhuis. “It would require a whole new cycle of creation to bring them back.”

“Think of nature as a plane,” said Jim Hanscom. “You lose a rivet off a wing, then you lose another rivet. The plane will still fly, but at which point do you lose so many rivets that the wing falls off? And that’s really what you must be concerned about in a living environment, that if you lose the snail darter fish or the California condor, it’s like losing rivets off an airplane wing, and we’re the ones who’ll finally crash.”

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The Crowd Goes Mild!
Chris Hutcherson holds condor's body while Jim Oosterhuis conducts chekup - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Chris Hutcherson holds condor's body while Jim Oosterhuis conducts chekup

This is how it happens. The little guy finds a fish. Not just any fish, but a special fish, with a special taste and special size. He shows the fish to the lady of his choosing. Sometimes she gets annoyed. Sometimes she's got someone she likes better. But sometimes she looks the guy over and waits for what comes next. So the little guy approaches with the little fish and he does a little dance. He swirls this way, and he swirls that way, and he holds the little fish in his mouth.

About 70 pairs of least terns nest in the reserve, up from about 21 in 1982.

Sometimes the lady decides that he’s a jerk and flies away. Sometimes she is charmed. She takes a few steps toward the guy. He takes a few steps toward her. Gently he slips the little fish into his lady’s mouth and she swallows. Can there ever be such happiness compared to theirs?

This is how love happens in the world of the California least tern, a small bird that zigzags through the air like a swallow and seeks out the sweet things to be found at the edge of the shore.

The brown pelicans nest on the Coronado Islands and come to the reserve to “loaf.”

When the female accepts the little fish, this constitutes marriage in the world of the least tern. Then they begin to build themselves a house. First they make an indentation in the sand, like a shallow bowl. Then they line the bowl with broken shells. They seek out shells and carry them to the bowl. They make a rudimentary mosaic with the shells. It’s not art, but it’s home. Soon the lady will be a mother. She lays two eggs, maybe four. There is excitement in the house of the least terns.

Birdwatchers at the Slough. Tijuana Slough is one of three Southern California refuges; the other two are Seal Beach and Sweetwater Marsh in Chula Vista.

Now let’s examine another scenario.

This time it’s a big guy, and instead of finding a little fish, he finds a little stick. Hut he too does his dance. He extends his dark wings, and they are huge. Maybe eight feet from tip to tip, maybe ten. He takes a few steps to the left, a few steps to the right. He raises his wings, and the tips curve forward like the tips of Dracula’s cape. Slowly he moves forward. Slowly his wings curve around the lady of his choosing.

Mike Mitchell: “Many people in Imperial Beach see no point in the refuge."

“Sometimes he’ll do it right then,” says Jim Oosterhuis, director of veterinary services at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and known by his colleagues as J.O. “He’ll walk right up the female’s back and balance with his huge wings. Sometimes she’ll be on a branch swaying back and forth, and he’ll be swaying back and forth as they have sex. It’s amazing, it’s beautiful.”

This is the California condor. Their nest consists of a few sticks on a cliff face. But they don’t have nests in the wild anymore. They have “condominiums” in the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Hut they might have nests again soon.

Mari von Hoffman: “I’ve seen a little chick lying dead in the sand with an oversized fish stuck halfway down its throat."

The California least tern weighs a couple of ounces. The California condor weighs 20 pounds. Both are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Although soon there may be no Endangered Species Act.

As a poet and a member of another kind of endangered species, I have a certain sympathy with endangered creatures. Three times I have received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts that I believe saved me from extinction. Hut there are differences. Not only between poets and birds, but between terns and condors.

Yearly, the sandpipers migrate from pole to pole and use the estuary as a “carbo-stop” on their long flight.

These particular least terns are found in the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, a 2531-acre parcel bordered on the north by Imperial Beach, on the west by the Pacific and the south by Mexico. The refuge makes up about 500 acres and is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which also administers 500 acres of Navy land in the reserve. On the southern boundary of the reserve is Border Field State Park. Then there is the U.S. Navy Auxiliary Landing Field wedged into the reserve like a filling in a molar, where helicopters practice quick landings.

The reserve is the largest salt marsh in Southern California. It is the only one open all year round to tidal flushing, a process sometimes called “nature’s kidneys,” in which water is purified by being swept back and forth through the marsh. This flushing is particularly necessary because most of the estuary’s 1700-square-mile watershed lies in Mexico, including Tijuana, with its 100,000 new people arriving each year. Tijuana produces far more sewage than can be processed by its wastewater system, and much winds up in the reserve.

Along with the least tern, 378 species of birds have been sighted in the reserve, including the Belding’s Savannah sparrow, the light-footed clapper rail, the least Bell’s vireo, the California brown pelican, and the American peregrine falcon — all of which are endangered species.

About 70 pairs of least terns nest in the reserve, up from about 21 in 1982. There are about 2000 nesting pairs of least terns in the state. They nest here, then fly down to Chile for the winter. This might seem like a lot of least terns, but these small birds deal with predators by mobbing and dive-bombing. Seventy nesting pairs of least terns produce a puny mob. Not even a rat would be frightened. And there is trouble with where they place their nests, a little indentation in the pickleweed, just over the dunes from the beach. Their chicks are cute, fluffy little things, like a hen’s chicks. It takes 20 days before they can fly. Unlike most baby birds, the chicks don’t take their food already chewed up by the parent and regurgitated. The chicks also eat little fish, whole little fish, not too big, not too little.

“I’ve seen a little chick lying dead in the sand,” said Mari von Hoffman, site manager at the refuge, “with an oversized fish stuck halfway down its throat. Sometimes there are no little fish to be found.”

If California’s least terns are an example of poverty in the bird world, then the California condors are an example of riches. The condors at the Wild Animal Park are part of a 20-year, $25 million project to increase their numbers and reintroduce them to the wild. The Condor Recovery Program began in 1979 when the existing condors were radio-tagged and their eggs taken to the Wild Animal Park for incubation and artificial breeding. When a mother condor loses an egg, she will “double clutch,” lay another within a month, which plainly increases the number of eggs that a condor can lay in a year.

“But they can be pretty clumsy mothers,” Jim Oosterhuis told me. “We’ve got videotapes of the mothers knocking the eggs out of the nest and sending them tumbling down the cliff.” Videos also show the mothers jumping up and down on their eggs.

In 1987, when it became clear that only seven condors were left in the wild, the decision was made to bring them into the Wild Animal Park. The condors are kept off-exhibit so as to be exposed as little as possible to human beings. The hand-raised chicks see only puppets that resemble mother condors. When old enough, they are put in one of ten huge wire-covered flight cages. These cages can be seen from the monorail on a hill high above the Asian plains exhibit.

I drove by the cages with Dr. Oosterhuis in his truck. A male condor rose up on its perch: as tall as a barstool, black, with a black ruff and a pink bald head resembling a scrawny elbow with a case of psoriasis.

“See him staring at us?” said Dr. Oosterhuis. Condors look at you sideways, one eye at a time. “They never miss a thing.”

This spring the mother condors were allowed to hatch one of their two eggs for the first time. Of the four chicks hatched in April and May, two are doing fine and two were killed, apparently accidentally, by their mothers. Even though the mothers are six years old. Dr. Oosterhuis suggested that they need more than the knowledge they may have genetically. Born and hand-raised at the Wild Animal Park, the new condor mothers lack older adults to show them what to do. But these new mothers are in the process of acquiring experience. Ideally, they will stop being clumsy and help educate younger mothers. All this is part of reintroducing an endangered species back to the wild.

The San Diego Wild Animal Park opened its doors to the general public May 10, 1972. The land in San Pasqual Valley, 30 miles north of downtown San Diego, had been acquired ten years earlier to house surplus animals and to breed larger ones. The park has 2200 acres, of which 700 are developed. There are 121 species of mammals and 285 species of birds for a total of 3200 animals. This includes 41 endangered animal species, 30 of which have been bred successfully at the park, including the Sumatran tiger, the South African cheetah, Indian and African elephants, a variety of gazelles, the Andean condor, and the California condor. Eighty southern white rhinos have been born at the park, and the species has been upgraded from endangered to threatened status. As many as 600 animals are born in the park each year. Some are kept, some are traded to other zoos, and some, like the condors and Arabian oryx, are returned to the wild. On the other hand, some endangered animals have no place to go. The cheetahs, tigers, and Indian rhinos are no longer welcome to roam in what had once been their natural habitat. Their future is to be kept in zoos and wild animal parks as display animals.

The Wild Animal Park supports itself on the admissions paid by the 1.4 million who visit the park each year. Food for the animals costs $50,000 per month. But other projects require special fund drives. For instance, in late May, the board of directors gave approval for a fund drive for a new veterinary hospital and research center. If all goes well, the hospital may be ready by the year 2000.

About 20,000 people visit the Tijuana Slough National Refuge each year, and perhaps 30,000 more use the beach. Tijuana Slough is one of three refuges that make up the Southern California Coastal Complex. The other two are Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge in northern Orange County and Sweetwater Marsh in Chula Vista, which also has a nature center. The coastal complex has an annual budget of $400,000.

As an urban refuge, Tijuana Slough has problems never experienced at the Wild Animal Park. For instance, there are cats and dogs.

“One day a woman came up to me and asked if I’d seen a mother cat and her kittens,” Mari von Hoffman told me. It turned out that the woman disliked having a cat box in her apartment, so she let the cat roam in the refuge, only coming home again to be fed. Then the cat had her kittens in the refuge as well.

“Cats are tremendously efficient,” said von Hoffman. “If left to themselves they would completely wipe out the clapper rails.”

Every year the people living near the estuary receive notice that it is illegal to let their pets roam free in the reserve. Cats and dogs are trapped and taken to the pound. Feral dogs and cats might be destroyed. Several times packs of wild dogs have crossed over from Mexico.

Another problem is illegal aliens.

“Until last October,” said von Hoffman, “we had up to a thousand illegals coming across from Mexico each day. Now it has been cut down to a trickle, thanks to Operation Gatekeeper.”

Gatekeeper is a new initiative to control the U.S. border and restrain illegal immigration. Run by the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it began October 1, 1994. Gatekeeper itself is only in San Diego County, but other states have similar programs. A Border Patrol spokesman called Gatekeeper “an ongoing operation which is here to stay.”

Until Gatekeeper, the illegal aliens were led safely across the reserve. Because they had to cross several streams, they carried changes of clothes in plastic bags. The foot traffic killed the plants, leaving a trail of muddy earth as wide as a dirt road. Employees at the refuge began to name parts of the estuary according to how it figured in the illegal crossing. The point of land before the last creek was called Underwear Point, because of the piles of underwear found on the far side. The creek itself was known as Bare Butt Crossing. The trees on the hill were the Hotel Trees, because people might stay under them for days. Refuge employees engaged in a practice that they jokingly called “trail shopping.”

“We’d find money on the trails,” said von Hoffman. “Wallets, some nice clothes, lots of ragged clothes. Most of it we put in the dumpster. The very best we sent to Goodwill.” Although the illegals have mostly been stopped, it has been at the expense of increased border patrols. Their boats cruise the inlets and channels, their trucks bounce across the dunes.

“I measured the tires on one truck coming within 12 inches of a nest,” said Michael Mitchell, refuge biologist. “We give presentations on the refuge at the Border Patrol musters in the morning, but their turnover is tremendous. They try their best, but it’s still a problem.”

Lifeguards also drive up and down the beach, which belongs to the State of California. The refuge proper begins at the dunes. At any time during the day, three or four helicopters can be seen in the air rising above the Navy airfield. There are also Border Patrol helicopters, U.S. Customs helicopters and Coast Guard helicopters.

“The birds don’t seem to mind the ’copters,” said von Hoffman, raising her voice over their noise.

Nor do the birds mind most of the trash that comes down the river from Tijuana.

“During a flood in ’93 we had a mass of refrigerators, tires, old shoes, plastic bottles, dead dogs, and lots of landfill-type debris.”

Almost wherever one looks, one can see semi-submerged tires and plastic bottles. The only harmful debris is old netting and the plastic rings that hold six-packs of beer or soda. These can entangle the birds.

“Anything you can imagine that people might do gets done down here,” said von Hoffman.

The refuge often has to put up with illegal collecting by scientists and collectors who come to snatch such creatures as the rare tiger beetle. Local residents occasionally change their motor oil by the reserve and dump the old oil in the marsh. Others dump old paint cans into the marsh.

But the greatest threat to the reserve has come from potential developers. The Helix Land Corporation began buying land in the estuary from the City of Imperial Beach and from private owners in the early ’60s. A new residential marina remained a strong possibility until Christmas Eve, 1980, when the Bureau of Fish and Wildlife bought the land from Helix.

“Helix made a big profit from selling the land,” said Mike McCoy, an Imperial Beach veterinarian who has been working for 25 years to preserve the estuary. McCoy and Jim Oosterhuis both began veterinary work at the Wild Animal Park as veterinary interns on June 1, 1970, but McCoy later decided to move to Imperial Beach.

“The reason I came to Imperial Beach,” he said, “was that big estuary. I’ve put my life into that place. My parents were real strong about having to protect the earth, and I’ve tried to do just that. The Wild Animal Park is a glorified zoo; the estuary is a totally natural area.”

Another argument against the building of a residential marina was the mass of raw sewage coming out of Tijuana. Now, however, a conventional sewage plant handling 25 million gallons a day and located on 26 acres just north of the Mexican border will put an end to the bad smells and raw sewage washing up on beaches. If all goes according to plan, the plant will be completed by February 1997. It will surely give an immediate boost to Imperial Beach real estate prices and make the area more desirable for development.

“The sewage treatment program also worries me because of the potential for huge freshwater inflows that could destroy the salt marshes and the estuary,” said Dr. McCoy. “But I remain hopeful. Nowadays businesses are under constant surveillance by the general public. It’s much harder for the forces of greed to pull the wool over our eyes.”

Yearly, the California least terns make their precarious nests in the sand. Yearly, the sandpipers migrate from pole to pole and use the estuary as a “carbo-stop” on their long flight. The brown pelicans nest on the Coronado Islands and come to the reserve to “loaf,” according to von Hoffman. As these birds lose their natural habitat, they fall prey to predators, both the human and animal variety.

“I would hate to see the least terns become display animals,” said Michael Mitchell, “and have the refuge become a least tern theme park. Population pressure can cause habitat extinction. If you take away habitat, then the predators win.”

The San Diego Wild Animal Park has had practically no problem with trespassers. Once a man jumped off the monorail but was quickly caught. Another time an illegal alien climbed a fence at night, went to sleep under a tree, and woke in the morning to find himself surrounded by giraffes.

But the task of releasing condors back into the wild has not been easy. Six were released last year in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, northeast of Santa Barbara. Not long after, one was found dead next to a puddle of antifreeze that it had apparently drunk. Another was killed when it flew into a high-power pylon. Then one day the police got a call from a frantic woman in Santa Barbara saying that a monstrous bird was eating the rubber weather stripping from her screen door. It and the other birds were recaptured, taken deeper into the valley, and released in an area not far from where President Reagan has his ranch.

“The trouble is that there are no birds in the wild to teach traditions,” said Dr. Oosterhuis. He went on to describe a program where they have made simulated high-power pylons, and when the condors in captivity land on them they receive light shocks.

“These condors have been riding updrafts up the side of a mountain for thousands of years," said Dr. Oosterhuis. “Now they reach the top and run into a pylon.”

Still, 10 to 12 more condors will be released into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary this winter and, ideally, as more are released, the birds will breed, although in the wild the female condor has only one egg every two years. Talks are going on to have more condors released in Grand Canyon National Park, as well as at Ted Turner’s ranch in New Mexico.

“But it’s not enough to concentrate on the single species,” said Dr. Oosterhuis. “We have to concentrate on the whole ecosystem. If the habitat’s not there, what are you going to do?”

In Sespe there are other endangered animals, such as the California kit fox, which benefit from the umbrella of protection given to the condor.

“No one’s going to buy land to protect the kit fox,” said Dr. Oosterhuis, “but the condor area will protect a whole lot of other species.”

“It’s the cutesy, high-profile species that get the money,” said Dr. McCoy. “But you can’t use the Endangered Species Act as a battering ram to save everything. We’ve created a backlash, and so we have to rethink how we do business over the world. Habitat protection and a shift in social and education priorities are needed so the public truly understands the problem. We also need a shift in the paradigm of what we are doing; growth mentality must succumb to the idea of a sustained yield. We can’t allow humanity to destroy the environment for short-term economic gain. The way we view our own species and other species — we’ve got to think of how we are linked together, not how we are separated.

The Wild Animal Park is a dramatic environment with elephants, giraffes, flamingos in settings that try to duplicate natural settings. The Tijuana estuary is not dramatic. A flat salt marsh with dunes and tidal creeks, it seems overshadowed by the Tijuana bullring about five miles away. But the closer one looks, the more complicated it becomes. The scale, however, is much smaller. Under a magnifying glass the tiger beetle looks fiercer than any rhino. The delicate, white, star-shaped flowers of the salt marsh dodder, lemonade-berry, and evening primrose, the sea lavender, and slender ladyfingers, and all the varieties of cactus create a complexity rarely seen in any other setting.

Mari von Hoffman pauses to watch a pair of least terns doing an elaborate dance through the air, chittering to one another. “I love how they talk,” she said. “I love all living things, but I think I draw the line at ticks.” She crouches by a growth of salt marsh bird’s beak, an extremely rare plant listed as an endangered species. The blossoms are white and violet with a little yellow at the top forming something resembling a bird’s beak. “These had been badly trampled by the illegals, but now they’re coming back fantastically,” she said, obviously happy. “It’s amazing how resilient these are if given a chance.”

I considered the matter of scale and remembered driving through the Wild Animal Park with Dr. Oosterhuis. He pointed across the valley. “Look at the big water buffalo. See how he’s watching us? I love it.” J.O. waved at the buffalo.

The differences between the Wild Animal Park and the estuary are the differences between a symphony and a sonata, a mural and a little watercolor. Even though Mike McCoy calls the Wild Animal Park “a glorified circus,” it tries to educate the public about the animals’ native environment. In the Tijuana refuge an interpretive center displays exhibits and offers literature.

“Many people in Imperial Beach see no point in the refuge,” Mike Mitchell told me. “One of our jobs is to educate them.”

It is amazing to look out over the salt marsh from the nature center and see how it changes from a bunch of weeds and water to become an infinite, multicolored variety of plants and wildlife. The only protection available to the least tern chicks is their ability to stand perfectly still and imitate the foliage, but looking really hard at the foliage one sees the complexity, sees the chicks motionless against the sand verbena. Then one sees a snowy egret and the delicate floating nest of the light-footed clapper rail within the cordgrass.

Still, constant pressure from developers and California’s population continues to grow.

“If the illegal alien problem goes away,” said Tom Alexander, manager of the Southern California Coastal Complex, “and if we get the sewage cleaned up, then we’ll get more visitors and more people who think Imperial Beach is a nice place to live. San Diego County so far has managed to have some open space. It has done a much better job than L.A., and that’s one of the things which makes San Diego so attractive.”

“The grazers and developers now call themselves land-rights people,” said Tom Hanscom at the Wild Animal Park, meaning they believe they should have the right to use the land in any way they wish. “We’re not the restrictors and deniers of freedom. We’re the ones who wish to conserve. True conservation is accommodation. The danger is Los Angelization. Who wants that?”

Recently, there have been increasing attempts in Congress to weaken and even repeal the Endangered Species Act. What would be the loss if all these endangered species disappeared?

Tom Hanscom argued that they may be useful in ways we are still discovering. He described how the Army used the California condor in biological warfare testing in the early 1940s. “They couldn’t kill them with any of the biological toxins, nor with botulism or anthrax. The condors have a tremendous immune system. There’s almost nothing they can’t eat. They hunt with their noses, and the deader something is, the better they like it. So perhaps the California condor holds the genetic key to improve our own immune system? As we stand on the threshold of new genetic engineering, will it be the condor’s genes that teach us how to develop antibiotics as the present ones become useless? Who is anyone to say that we can let condors die out because all they do is eat dead stuff?”

When I asked why animals shouldn’t be allowed to become extinct, at least half a dozen people gave me the example of the canary in the coal mine: that the sudden death of the canary warns the miners of the presence of poison gas.

“The danger to the least tern is telling us that something much more ominous is coming,” said Tom Alexander.

“The existence of these creatures is an indication of the quality of our air, land, and water,” said Mike Mitchell at the refuge. “We need them to see how we’re doing. It’s vital to the Pacific flyway to have places where migrating birds can stop and rest. All a developer has to do is get his hands on this land once and it’s gone. It’s not a matter of how much money you can make developing a piece of property, but the quality of life.”

“Fish and Wildlife has more land to manage than the National Park Service but has a fraction of the budget,” said von Hoffman. “Yet we’ve been cut back and cut back. Our whole point here is to have biodiversity, but that’s constantly threatened.”

“The effort to save the least tern is symptomatic of the effort to save the entire planet,” said Dr. McCoy. “It’s not just a matter of saving a bird here or a mammal there. We’ve pretty much destroyed the integrity of ecosystems that are eons old. When you do that, you destroy the integrity of life. In the 200 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve endangered human survival. It’s a disaster already in process. We have to look at the conditions that permit life, which means concentrating on the interlinking of all life. We have to rethink what it is to be a human being.”

I think again of the endangered poet and the function of art. In his essay “What Is Art?” the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote that art can evoke “reverence for the dignity of every man and woman and for the life of every animal; can make people ashamed of luxury, of violence, of revenge, or of using for their own pleasure that which others need; can compel people freely, gladly, and spontaneously to sacrifice themselves in the service of mankind.”

A work of art, such as a poem, also leads a person to ask what it is to be a human being. The function of the imagination is to let the mind travel out of the self and consider other lives. Imagination gives us the ability to empathize, and our empathy makes us realize that we are alone neither in our joy nor in our suffering. Our experiences are shared experiences. The arts and biodiversity show us about life. They educate us. They allow us to see ourselves in relation to the world and other people. To get rid of an art form, an ecosystem, to get rid of a species—each is a step toward getting rid of ourselves.

“You have to think of each of these animals as a unique creation, like a work of art,” says Jim Oosterhuis. “It would require a whole new cycle of creation to bring them back.”

“Think of nature as a plane,” said Jim Hanscom. “You lose a rivet off a wing, then you lose another rivet. The plane will still fly, but at which point do you lose so many rivets that the wing falls off? And that’s really what you must be concerned about in a living environment, that if you lose the snail darter fish or the California condor, it’s like losing rivets off an airplane wing, and we’re the ones who’ll finally crash.”

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