In the first few years of knowing Amelia, we shared in lip-syncing VH1 music videos, telling scary stories over campfires and jumping trampoline. It's what I like to think of as classic kid stuff.
Most lastingly, we connected over a shared fascination with the natural world around us, specifically the delicate bond between animals and humans.
We spent days and nights tramping around the woods and wetlands that surrounded our houses, scooping everything from tadpoles to garter snakes out from under logs, out of the muck and from the water. We easily, and I believe, maturely, grasped at the complex and fragile balance between these creatures and ourselves — a lesson not just in respect for the environment, but in responsibility to it.
Now entering our 20s, as my path has led me down new avenues, Amelia’s current work reflects her lifelong desire to explore, protect and improve the quality of the environment and its diversity of inhabitants.
This summer, Amelia is partaking in the Central Michigan University Gull Exclusion Study.
In the words of Elizabeth Wheeler, who is one of the professors heading the project: “Our overarching objective in this study is public health.” She explains that over the past decades, the gull population on public beaches has exceeded normal levels. This has led to conflicts between gull and humans due to bacteria and other microorganisms, which the birds carry to public beaches.
The study seeks to answer two questions: “(1) Can border collies discourage gulls from landing at public beaches? And (2) will keeping gulls off the public beaches keep the bacteria levels in swimming water and beach sand at acceptable levels?”
Amelia’s job entails handling a docile, 16-month-old border collie named Darla for morning and evening shifts at the beach.
Darla was previously trained to chase geese off military runways in North Carolina. But now her task is to chase gulls — specifically ring-billed and herring gulls — from West Michigan beaches.
Amelia’s and Darla’s beach shifts are currently being conducted at North Shore Beach, paired with Kirk Park as the other “treatment” location. These beaches are treated by the collies against two “control” beaches: Grand Haven City Beach and a private beach with the Grand Haven Beach Association, which are left alone for the gulls to do as they please.
After July 4, the beaches will switch roles — the treated beaches becoming controls and the control beaches getting treated with collies chasing after gulls.
On the treatment beach, Amelia’s responsibilities are to count the number of gulls every 15 minutes, recording how many gulls are on the beach, how many are near the beach and how many people are at the beach. If gulls are present, Amelia sends Darla into action at the end of a 30-foot lead to chase the gulls from the beach area.
Amelia and Darla work these double shifts five days a week. And on Tuesdays, Amelia collects samples of water and sand, which are sent to the lab at Central Michigan University and tested for salmonella and E. coli. If given the opportunity, she is tasked with (“proudly,” she jokes) collecting gull droppings, which are also gathered by the microbiology team and tested.
The information Amelia records is sent to a dropbox. The data compiled over the course of the summer should give the professors and students leading the exclusion study an indication of the impact the collie treatment can have upon the gull population, and more importantly the ability of such treatment to lower bacteria levels on beaches — an important improvement for all of us resident beachgoers.
This study has given Amelia the opportunity to work closely with a canine companion out in nature, where she can continue her connection with animals, but with a purpose: public and environmental health.
Amelia tells me she always saw herself doing something outdoors or with animals — and her chosen field, biology, opens a plethora of opportunities for her to seek such a future beyond college studies. She could see herself doing anything from field research to canine physical therapy, she says.
Based on our experiences way back chasing frogs and raising our Lab puppies when we were neighbors, I couldn’t see her doing anything much different.
That gives me both personal and broad hope, to consider that our earliest, most innate passions can carry us into the big, confusing world of college and career choices, if we only stay true to ourselves.
— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist