Around 8:15 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 13, Lisa Williams received an exciting phone call: a great blue heron had been rescued near Marshall, Michigan, and was on its way to the wildlife rehabilitation center where she currently is stationed as the director.
The great blue heron was wrapped securely in a white terrycloth towel and tucked into a navy blue animal crate. When the animal arrived, Williams was there to greet the rescue team as she reviewed the intake logs for the day. She flipped through the pages, noting the number of reptiles (mostly turtles), bird and mammals that had been brought to the center
The wildlife rehabilitation center in Marshall (made from former office buildings of a local casino) has been established to meet the needs of the Kalamazoo River oil spill that occurred in late July. More than 30 miles of rivers and wetlands have been impacted by the spill, and it’s Williams’ job to ensure the cleanup runs smoothly.
Williams’ passion for environmental science began when she was in the sixth grade. She remembers the exact moment that transformed her destiny, and a love for nature and wildlife began.
“A male rose-breasted grosbeak was singing in my neighbor’s yard. I just thought it was amazing and that I could go inside and there was a book that [I] could look up and match the picture to. So I started bird watching; I subscribed to Ranger Rick, and Audubon Magazine,” said Williams.
When Williams began her studies at Michigan State University (MSU), the choice was simple: three majors in four years (biology, chemistry and environmental sciences). Williams followed up her bachelors with a masters degree in fisheries and wildlife; finally rounding out her education with a PhD in environmental toxicology from MSU in 1993. With an educational background like Williams’ and the experience to match it, her skills (fortunately and unfortunately) have recently been in high demand.
On June 29, 2010, Williams got the call sending her to Houma, La., to assist with the oil spill in the Gulf. While stationed there for 14 days, Williams served as the assistant deputy wildlife branch director.
“We had a branch of about 300 people … we were managing crews that were going out and retrieving wildlife, managing releases and performing rehabilitation,” said Williams.
After two weeks, Williams returned to her home in Laingsburg for a mandatory two-day rest. Just six days after returning to Michigan, she received the call that would shape the rest of her summer.
“At four in the afternoon [on July 26], I got a call from our regional environmental officer. I was in Marshall by 6:15 p.m. with my laptop, a hard hat, steel toe rubber boots, some tyvek and two cell phones,” said Williams.
For more than two months, Williams has been working 12-hour days at tasks very similar to those performed in the Gulf. She manages dozens of employees and hundreds of volunteers. With meetings, maps and intake logs, Williams will be the first to tell you there’s much more to clean-ups than the white suits and Dawn soap.
“One of the things that surprised me is that it takes a lot of people skills to protect wildlife; it’s not technical information that solves environmental problems, it’s people using technical information and working together that solves environmental problems,” said Williams.
“You can be the smartest, most knowledgeable person about a particular field, but if you can’t communicate about it and you can’t work with other people to apply that knowledge, you can’t use it to save the world,” added Williams.
In the two short hours that Williams let us into her world, it was apparent that communication was the driving force behind her success in the field. From walkie-talkies to the spill cell to maps and white boards, communication is all around her – and so are the people.
“I went into the field because the 18-year-old me didn’t like people. I just wanted to study things and save them,” said Williams. “But I’ve learned that I can be one of those bridge people. I can read the scientific papers and I can talk to the people who ‘just want to do their science.’ I can help people decide what’s scientifically sound … and figure out ways to knit together policy, regulation and science and different people’s goals … try to find the win-win-win situation.”
If the work in Marshall is any evidence of Williams’ ability to bring people together in a positive, passionate way, then her win-win-win situation is already at hand.
As Williams showcased the different areas of the wildlife rehabilitation center, teams of individuals worked tirelessly cleaning turtles with cotton swabs and scrub brushes; others tucked birds and mammals to sleep in quiet, “stress-free” zones; employees input data on their laptops and discussed the day’s work, along with tasks for tomorrow.
The dozens of employees that were onsite the evening of our interview were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to helping hands. Thousands of volunteers came forward to help after the oil spill in July; it’s Williams’ job to assess individual abilities and place resources where they’re needed.
“It’s wonderful to see so many people caring so much. It’s really challenging for us to manage that amount of generosity, stay organized, keep track of people and keep the work going,” said Williams. “We basically had to hire three layers of volunteer coordinators to manage the help. We had to have security managing donations or we would have ended up with things we didn’t need.”
A security guard is stationed outside of the center around the clock, working 12-hour shifts to ensure the animals are left unharmed and to ensure the people coming in and out are there to make a difference.
“It’s really helpful when people can volunteer through organizations where we have one contact person who represents 40 people,” said Williams.
Williams also encourages individuals to “think globally, act locally.” Think about the resources we’re using in our day-to-day lives and how they impact the world around us.
Lucky for Mid-Michigan, we don’t have to drive far to experience the extraordinary wildlife around us. Our home sweet home is full of beauty and natural wonders – Williams agrees.
“There are amazing things all around if you sit quietly and look. Michigan is just an amazing place, and so is our region … Visit the Ledges, take a walk on the river trail or around Lake Lansing, visit a county park; you don’t have to drive up to Lake Michigan, just step outside your door,” said Williams.
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