They call us Park Service Bitches: Geneva Hartland, Sallie Bailey, and me, Kylie Wheeler from Birmingham, Alabama. This past May I walked off the stage at the University of Colorado with a ribbon around my neck, a medallion hanging between my breasts, and a leather-bound diploma swinging from my fingertips. That’s how I snagged this job with the National Park Service. The federal government is impressed with stuff like that.
We walk, and sometimes ride, the beaches at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, wearing Department of Interior outfits: olive green shorts and matching blouses with insignias on the shoulders, Vasque boots, and wide-brim hats. We put on sunglasses, sunblock, and insect repellent before we venture out of our housing units. Sallie and I live in old army barracks that date from pre-Civil War days.
A biological science technician, GS 5 level, I was hired to protect endangered species on the island. Specifically, I am to document sightings of black skimmers, least terns, and piping plovers. I am to follow them through their mating and nesting cycles and protect them from harm.
I carry government-issue, high-powered binoculars. Sometimes, in the pursuit of my duties, I have to become a Park Service Police Officer. Hence the name: Park Service Bitch.
Sallie is an intern, unpaid except for free housing and uniforms. She dreams of getting a job with Greenpeace one day.
Geneva is our boss.
The swimmers and sunbathers who come over from the mainland don’t like it when we close their beaches, which we do from time to time. And the nudies up on Gunnison don’t like women who are clothed coming into their private world. Mostly gay and largely male, they especially dislike women in positions of authority.
Right off the bat, one of them got smart with me about roping off an area of the beach where he wanted to set up a badminton court.
“Every year you’re taking more of the beach away from us,” he whined. “I’m a taxpayer, like everyone else. I have rights.”
Yeah, right. Get a life, Mister. “Sir, we’re here to protect the piping plovers. We have no control over where they decide to nest. Our job is to find the nests, build an exclosure, and rope off the surrounding area. If you have a problem with that, write your congressman. He voted for the Endangered Species Act.” Get out of my way. I have a job to do.
Geneva trained us to be tough. Uncompromising. Anyone who won’t listen, throw them off the island, she said. Ban them from coming onto the Hook for the rest of the season. And don’t hesitate to call security if you need extra muscle.
She handed me a radio, which I hooked onto my belt. It became part of my uniform.
Geneva takes nothin’ off nobody. She’s been here seven years, and she’s seen it all.
She just got tossed out of her house because she let her boyfriend move in with her. The government frowns on what they call “fraternization.” Since her eviction, Geneva’s been in a constant state of mad.
Yet she can be soft in ways that catch you unexpectedly. Like last week, when she went after some New York City trash who decided to picnic inside one of our nesting areas. She grabbed one of our signs off the truck and waved it in their faces. “Can’t you read English? Do you understand what this says? A-R-E-A C-L-O-S-E-D?” She was so mad she sprayed spit when she spelled out the letters.
It was a family of foreign-looking people who probably did not speak English. They never said a word, just looked scared and backed away from her. The father ushered his wife and carbon-copy kids under the wire, and they scrambled off as fast as hermit crabs.
The nest had been trampled. The two plovers scampered around on the sand, one of them doing the broken wing act, trying to draw us away from the nest.
“She thinks her babies are still alive,” Geneva said. She walked over to the smoothed-out hollow in the sand.
All four eggs were squashed, the nest wet with mucous. You could see the imprint of a kid’s shoe; he’d run right through it.
Geneva hunkered down and picked up a piece of broken egg, and I thought she would cry. She held it in the palm of her hand, just looking at it for the longest time. “It was no more than a day or two from hatching,” she said.
With Sallie and me looking on, it felt as if we were attending a funeral there on the beach.
Inside the curve of the shell was a wet cotton ball. Geneva touched its beak, its orange legs, its tiny feet.
Baby plovers look like puffs of cotton stuck on orange toothpicks. This one would never run on the beach, never do the broken wing trick, never have a nest of its own.
Damn stupid people.
* * *
I arrived on the island during a thunderstorm that cut the electricity, doubled trees over, and nearly toppled the lighthouse up on the north shore. I spent the night huddled in an empty dorm room wondering why I ever left Boulder, wishing I’d brought a flashlight, praying the ocean didn’t rear up and sweep right over the island.
The next morning I had to clean up the road that runs down the spine of the island. In the afternoon I set fox traps. And I saw my first nude, an old gay man jogging on the road well beyond the area where he should have been.
I let him go. He was wearing a shirt, so he wasn’t totally nude. And with my new uniform still stiff from the sizing, I could afford to wait another day or two.
That first week I caught a feral cat, but I let her go, too. She was a nursing mother, and she’d eaten every bit of the raw chicken I’d tied to the tripwire inside the cage. Her belly was puffed out with chicken and her breasts swollen with milk.
Geneva was ready to send me packing for that. “Don’t you realize she’ll eat the birds as soon as they hatch?” Sand birds who run on the beach, preferring to walk rather than fly, are no match for a hungry mother cat with kittens hidden away. “Find her kittens and take them over to the shelter in Red Bank,” she ordered.
But I never did. The mother cat avoided the trap after that. She was as smart as the foxes, who are doomed. I’ve seen the paperwork on Geneva’s desk; the Park Service plans to gas the dens in the spring.
I did catch one fox and managed to find him a home. The Bronx Zoo agreed to ship him down to the Great Smoky Mountains, where he can live with others of his species. If he’s lucky, he might be able to catch one of the wild pigs that threaten the delicate balance park officials strive to maintain.
When I learned the fate of other foxes that might wander into my traps, I made some changes. I quit scrubbing off the traces of fox blood. I neglected to remove my own scent from the cages. I even sprayed some of the trap doors with perfume I borrowed from Sallie’s makeup bag. All this kept his brothers at a distance, safe from the ranger’s pistol.
The zoo officials put my fox in a cage lined with the New York Post. They joked that he could read about Bill Clinton’s sex life on his plane ride to Tennessee. And if that didn’t interest him, he could look at the picture of the newborn baby found in a dumpster in Queens.
Sometimes we ride the Park Service horses around the island, and sometimes we take the Jeep. We use the Jeep when we have to carry fencing to build exclosures and barriers around the plover nests. We have 42 nesting pairs here on the island, which is about a third of all the piping plovers left in the world.
Geneva says last year the park service was able to document 72 hatchling chicks. So far this summer only four babies have fledged.
Occasionally we find fox tracks around the empty nests. The cats and sea gulls take a toll, as do summer storms and high tides. But it’s the people who are the worst offenders. They drive across the bridge and crowd in here, walk over the nests, flop down on the beach with never a thought as to what they might be destroying.
Weekends we Bitches are out in force, hiding behind the dunes, guarding the nesting areas. It’s getting so I like my nickname, because it means I’m doing my job.
* * *
I’m busy sledge hammering posts into the sand up on Kingman Beach when the old nude man approaches me.
“I’ve been watching you building these pens for days, sweetie. Why are you doing it?” He puts an arm around me, jostles me as if I were a child.
“The nests are hard to see, sir,” I tell him, twisting away from him. “But they’re here.” I wipe an arm across my nose; he smells of coconut oil and something else I can’t identify.
“I haven’t seen a birdie all day, darlin’,” he says. The shirt from that first day is gone. He wears three earrings. Nothing else. “Maybe they’ve gone somewhere else.”
“They’re shore birds,” I tell him. “They have nowhere else to go. This is where they live. Once there were millions. All up and down the coast. Now there are a few hundred.”
“Maybe I could help you,” he says, and moves to take the hammer from me.
But I tell him to get himself back to Gunnison where he belongs. I drum my fingers on the steel post and watch to make sure he goes in the right direction.
Some of the nudies like to be looked at. When they see our Jeep approaching, they strut their stuff. As if we care about their appendages and piercings and wacko jewelry. Sallie, raised a Baptist, looks the other way. Nude is bad enough, she says. Nude and gay is over the top.
Geneva says they think we spy on them, hide behind the dunes with our binoculars, hoping to gather evidence so we can close their beach. But who cares what they do down there? As long as they leave the birds alone.
* * *
“Chill out, lady,” the fisherman says, kicking sand in my direction. “I’m not anywhere near your birds.”
“You’re in a restricted area,” I tell him. “You’ll have to leave.”
“The nests are way up there on the hill,” he argues. He takes a crab off his line and throws it to the waiting sea gulls. They scramble to grab their prize. The winners tear it to pieces.
“The plovers have to come down to the intertidal area to feed,” I tell him. “When the tide goes out, that’s the richest feeding ground. That’s why we rope it off down to the water. You’ll have to go somewhere else.”
He throws another crab to a gull who stands apart from the others. The bird gobbles it down, his beak twisting like a knife in the hands of a Jersey City gangster.
I notice that the gull has only one leg, and I wonder who to feel sorry for, bird or crab.
“Why don’t you go get laid,” the fisherman says, winding in his line, gathering up his equipment.
I stand very still, wondering what Geneva would do.
“You can’t walk through this exclosure, sir,” I tell him. I plant my legs wide and solid in the sand and jerk my radio off my belt.
“Just how am I supposed to get around your precious bird sanctuary?”
“Walk up to the road, sir. Walk along the road until you find a path down to an area that is not roped off.” I tap a fingernail against the plastic on my radio.
He picks up his gear and moves off.
* * *
One month on the job and I’m frustrated and angry. Geneva tells me to take a break. “Saddle up one of the horses and go for a ride,” she says. “Hurricane needs a good workout. Take him over to Hidden Cove and look for fox dens and terns. Have a picnic on the beach.”
I saddle the chestnut gelding, and we race along the water’s edge for most of the morning. We swim across to Skeleton Island, and I marvel at the blue herons and snowy egrets and oystercatchers.
There have never been piping plovers at Hidden Cove, but this year they’re all over the beach. Hurricane and I round an outcropping of rock, and I spot half a dozen nesting pairs. Babies and adult birds rush about helter-skelter, more birds than I can count.
I sit on my horse thinking this is the way it used to be. Geneva is miles away, but I want to call out to her to come look. I want to slap my horse on the rump and fly up to the lighthouse and send her a signal, come quick, Geneva, come see what I found.
The tide is out and the birds are active. They scamper down to the water’s edge, grab an insect or some interesting piece of flotsam, run back to the nest, or just zigzag around in bursts of energy. There are no predators, and the plovers are thriving.
I tether Hurricane to a piece of driftwood and settle down in the sand to document what I’m seeing. I make notes in my field book, map out the nests, estimate the number and ages of the babies. As the day advances, the heat, the lapping water, and the lovely sight of the peeping sand birds work their magic on me. Nestled in the warm sand, I doze off.
I’m awakened by rap music booming from a portable radio, its insistent rhythm sending an electric shock through the air. The plovers have never heard such noise; they take cover wherever they can.
A group of boys comes dancing up the beach. They wear oversized jeans that drag in the sand. I move behind a ridge of rocks.
One of the boys kicks an empty Coke can into a tuft of sea grass, and three plovers run out, chirping fearfully. They’re sand colored and orange with black stripes between their eyes and around their necks. They run about in melee, their hiding place discovered, the music reverberating between the water and the rock-strewn dunes.
“Let’s get ’em,” one of the boys yells, and they swing into action. They herd the plovers away from the protective dunes, toward the sea. One plover is cut off from his nest mates, and he cries out. His pursuer falls on top of him. When the boy rises, he looks down at the captured bird. It does not move.
I toss my notebook aside and come roaring out of my hiding place, yelling, racing down the incline. But the surf pounds and the boom box blares, and the boys pay me no mind.
They pick up pieces of driftwood and begin to beat the mounds of grass, looking for more birds, shooing the babies out from their shelters. They chase after them, driving them into the sea, up onto the rocks, striking them, killing them.
Then I’m on the beach, screaming, shaking my fists at them. “What are you doing? These birds are protected! You’re breaking the law! Get away from here! Get off the island!”
They look at me as if I’m some kind of psycho. I mash the button on my radio, yell at the dispatcher, my voice cracking, “Emergency, this is an emergency. This is Wheeler up at Hidden Cove. Send someone quick. Get the Park Police up here.”
I’m still babbling when the police car roars up the road, blue lights flashing, siren screaming. The officer jumps out of his car and comes at a run.
“They’re killing the plovers,” I shout, “deliberately chasing and killing them, smashing them with driftwood. I saw him, that ugly kid, where is he? Where has he gone? He deliberately killed a baby plover.”
But by then the boys have rounded the ridge of rocks and disappeared. Their manhood proven, they’ve fled the beach. And the sea has conspired to save them; the tide is busy washing away their footprints.
I walk out among the carnage and begin to count the dead plovers. There are seven. Others may be injured and hidden away.
I look down the beach to where the boys have gone, and I think it’s a good thing Geneva gave me only a radio.
* * *
On the biggest weekend of the year, the Fourth of July holiday, we get a report that a whale has washed up on the beach north of Gunnison. Geneva and I spin off in the Jeep.
The whale rests partly in the sand, partly in the water. He’s gray/black with a white belly and at least 15 feet long. And he’s beyond our help. Beyond anyone’s help. His back is a mangled mess: a two-foot piece of spine is missing.
“Most likely hit by a boat,” Geneva says. She identifies him as a minke, another endangered species. “The bay used to be full of them,” she says.
She walks around the dead whale, her hand pressed tight against her mouth and nose. “The propeller nearly cut him in half. Bury him above high tide.” She turns and hurries away.
I watch her climb the dune and wonder if what Sallie says is true, that our boss is pregnant.
And how do I get the whale up to where I can bury him? High tide is 50 feet away, up a steep bank.
The old nudie with the three earrings appears from nowhere. “We’ll need to cut him in half,” he says, shading his eyes from the sun as he looks around, calculating how best to get the job done. “Throw a rope around him and use your Jeep to drag him up past that ledge of rocks. Dig a hole up there and bury him.”
“Who is we?” I ask. “And if you want to roam around the island, you’ll have to put on some clothes.” I end up shouting my final words to his retreating figure.
Ten minutes later he returns with a serrated butcher knife. He’s busy sawing through the rubber and fat and torn innards of the minke when I notice he’s put on bathing trunks.
It takes me two trips with the Jeep and one ruined clutch before I get both pieces of whale up the hill. I radio for a clean-up crew to come dig the hole.
It’ll be morning, at the earliest, before they can come, the guy from maintenance tells me. It might be longer, he says. They’ll need a backhoe for the job, and that’ll have to come from the mainland.
By then the whale will have ruined many a New Yorker’s holiday, I tell him.
I wash off in the ocean, nurse the Jeep down to the parking lot, and return to my job. I find a spot in the dunes where I have a wide view of the beach. I lay my binoculars in the sand, lather on the sun block, spritz on some insect repellent.
The government is paying me thousands of dollars to roam the beaches and look for birds. I am to seek out and protect terns and skimmers, of which there are none.
But I can guard the plovers. Keep people away from their nests. Keep the nudies within their boundaries so they do not offend the sensibilities of the majority.
The old man sits on a nearby rock. I should chase him back to where he belongs, but I do not.
He leans back, looks up at the sky. “I’ve eaten many a plover egg in my day,” he says.
“You’ve eaten these bird eggs?”
“Sorry, love,” he says. “I have.”
“My name is Kylie,” I tell him.
He talks about ordering the dish in some of the finest restaurants in New York. They were considered a delicacy, he says, looking across the bay toward the city, which is enshrouded in a mantle of pollution. “They served them on toast, covered with Hollandaise. They were mild tasting, kind of like …” and he gazes up at the sky, searching for a word to describe them.
“People used to come out here to the beaches and collect the eggs,” he says. “Stick a needle in them, suck out the insides, and add them to their collections.”
Like Geneva with the whale, my stomach has gone queasy.
“It was a long time ago,” he says. “We didn’t know. Things are so different now. I’m really sorry, little girlie.” His eyes seem weary, and his three earrings glint in the sun.
Sailors of long ago wore earrings in case they were lost at sea. If a sailor’s body washed up on shore, the hope was that someone would remove the earring and sell it, then use the money to pay for a decent burial.
In the distance I can see the black hulk of the dead whale resting in two parts on top of the hill. Nearby, I see what I think is a fox den, but I choose not to investigate.
The nudie has put on bathing trunks. Things do not fit so neatly anymore.
He calls me “little girlie.” I should object to that. Me, Kylie Wheeler. Phi Beta Kappa. Summa Cum Laude. The Bitch who dragged a whale up a hill and tore out a clutch in the process.
But I’m touched. I lean back, close my eyes, scratch the poison ivy blisters on my leg, and think about the fox I rescued. Saved from certain death. Sent to Tennessee where he can cavort with his own.
When I looked through the bars of the cage that day, into the eyes of the fox I’d captured, and he looked at me, I knew I did not want to be the cause of his death.
Now the old man looks at me, and I see that he is old, and gay, and his life has been hard. And there isn’t much I can do. Except not make things worse for him. Maybe touch his arm when I leave.
* * *
Enjoyed This Story?
Read more about Kylie Wheeler and her journey from intern to licensed vet in Rita Welty Bourke’s newly-released collection of stories:
Kylie’s Ark: The Making of a Veterinarian
by Rita Welty Bourke
Published by Lansinger Press
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After her experiences in Gunnison Beach, Kylie encounters big egos, small budgets, grand intentions, and joyful triumphs. Does she have what it takes to survive a lonely internship in rugged Montana, grueling hours at a prestigious equine hospital in Kentucky, and worse, her own self-doubt when the decisions are hers alone? Read Kylie’s Ark: The Making of a Veterinarian to discover the successes that make the practice of veterinary medicine worthwhile.