By Patti Smith; Photos by Patti Smith and Katie DeSantis
When a sea turtle, small whale or dolphin is in need of rescue, Secret Holmes-Douglas responds whether it is in the middle of the night or the wee hours of the morning. Almost everyone knows that Gulf World Marine Park is a wonderful family-friendly attraction in Panama City Beach, but most do not know what happens behind the scenes with Gulf World Marine Institute. Secret directs the Institute which operates under the umbrella of Gulf World Marine Park as a 501c3 nonprofit that responds to injured sea turtles, dolphins and small whales.
Secret, who is also the Zoological Director at the marine park, is the first responder when a stranded animal is reported. She works alongside General Manager Pam George and Staff Veterinarian Dr . Lydia Staggs. They all strive to achieve their goal of educating the community about marine animals, birds and reptiles and how to protect them. Not every animal that is rescued through the Institute can survive, but the ones that can are treated and either released back into the sea or welcomed to reside at a marine park or other government-approved facility. Ultimately, the government decides where an animal will live after its rehabilitation, based on determining its best possible care and habitat.
That’s how five rough-toothed dolphins—two males and three females—came to live at Gulf World. It’s the only facility in North America that has successfully kept them alive in long-term human care, says Dr. Staggs. “Working with stranded animals makes you feel like you’re actually making a difference,” she reflects. The days that a dead animal has to be collected or a wounded animal has to be euthanized are difficult, but it is part of the job.
The Marine Park has been involved in rescuing thousands of stranded marine animals since 1970. Aiding an animal’s recovery requires tireless effort. Secret has spent many nights walking an animal around the rehabilitation pool. Many times rehabilitation is a 24- hour, months-long job whether it is raining or 30 degrees outside.
“There is a set of standards we put on ourselves to ensure we are giving the best animal care. We are one of the few facilities that respond to strandings, and you can’t help but want an animal to survive,” said Secret. She has been with the park seventeen years and has seen it grow into the beautiful facility that it is today—a six-acre property that features exhibits including reptiles, sharks, dolphins, tropical birds, penguins and botanicals.
As Zoological Director, Secret is in charge of daily operations of the animal care and training department at Gulf World. She supervises and guides the staff in order to maintain training goals, educational programs, communication and health of all animals. Secret is also the go-to person in the stranding institute and is the point person in conversations with regulatory organizations such as the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.
Pam George, Secret Holmes-Douglas and Dr. Lydia Staggs work very closely together – with decisions needing to be made on a daily basis . Communication between them is key to upholding standards of animal care as well as customer care.
Pam, who is General Manager of Gulf World, is excited for this season. Panama City is growing, and with that growth, she is looking forward to new visitors who will care to listen, learn and pass on the knowledge about Gulf World to their friends and families. The message is: Take care of the environment and help sea animals have a better chance of survival against negative human influences such as pollution—fishing lines, hooks, plastic materials like bags, bottle tops and small toys.
Watching a dolphin flip nearly thirty feet in the air and respond to a trainer’s command gets a crowd’s attention. While they have it, trainers take that time to teach about marine animals and the dangers they face in the wild.
For example, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for their favorite diet: jellyfish. Dr. Staggs explains that once a turtle swallows a plastic bag, the bag gets caught in its stomach or intestines and food cannot pass through their digestive system. They develop an impaction, and if they are not found and treated, they will die because they will starve to death. They don’t want to eat because they are in pain . She gives the stranded animals she treats mineral oil to help them pass foreign bodies. “At least half of them have ingested something they shouldn’t have and the biggest culprit is some kind of plastic,” she said.
Dr . Staggs is responsible for the overall health of every animal at Gulf World and every stranded animal the Institute takes in . Part of her job is to conduct physical exams including blood draws . Removing fishing hooks, treating gashes from boat propellers and removing impactions are largely the issues she treats in sea turtles . The work with stranded animals is in addition to her work at the Marine Park . Both keep her extremely busy .
After the BP oil spill in 2010, about 149 sea turtles were rescued. They were cleaned with mayonnaise and released when the water was safe again. “We lathered them up with mayonnaise because it helps bind it to the oil, and then it is easier to wipe it off. We also swab their mouths with mayonnaise (to clear the mouths of the oil),” said Dr. Staggs.
Gulf World Marine Institute responds when animals are threatened by nature’s influence. In the winter of 2010 when air temperatures dropped to 30 degrees, sea water temperatures dropped to 40 degrees—much too cold for around 1,800 sea turtles that had been cold-stunned in the shallow waters of St. Joe Bay It happens every couple of years when temperatures drop to freezing conditions and the turtles are not able to swim due to the temperatures. Gulf World took them in by the dozens and hundreds. When temperatures rose again, they were released into the warmer Gulf waters.
“A lot of kids are inspired by our animals,” said Pam . “They go home and educate their family members about how important it is to not throw litter on the beach.”
Pam has been with the facility since 2006when she came on as Marketing Manager. Later she took on human resources responsibilities and added more and more responsibilities and soon was involved in everything it takes to run the park. She states Gulf World is a great place to work where morale is high and everyone is happy to do their jobs. She credits owners Ron Hardy and Brad Miller and partner Dan Blasko with creating a great work environment where people care about what they do. “I put my heart and soul in here,” Pam said . “When you love a place as much as I do, you find more ways to be involved ”
Pam is responsible for all operations at Gulf World Marine Park . She handles administration, human resources, marketing, technology, insurance, and guest services including ticketing, the gift shop and snack bar. In addition to her duties at the park, she serves as vice president on the board of the Gulf World Marine Institute and works closely with the board on fund raising and marketing. Pam also has been trained to respond to stranded animals and can help with necropsies as well as the rehabilitation of dolphins and sea turtles.
The latter part of Pam’s responsibilities can be an emotional and stressful process for this team of leading ladies. Dr. Staggs has learned the best way to handle that kind of stress. “When you’ve had a bad day, you go get a sea lion kiss,” she says.
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