Veterinary Student Adds Marine Mammal and Environmental Activist to Her Resume

April 26, 2011

by Heather Rally

With a life-long passion for anything animal-related, it was never a question that veterinary medicine was in my future. As a child, I turned our house into a zoo and gave it a reputation as the neighborhood wildlife rehab center. Naturally, I moved on to volunteering and internships, spent a few years as a small animal technician, earned a degree in biological sciences from UCSB and, finally, earned a spot in the Western University College of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2013.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that I would soon become what some people would call an avid animal welfare and environmental activist. The emotionally and intellectually taxing experiences of the past two years have not only reshaped my view of the world, but have redefined my role within it.

And so it begins...

Amidst the mixture of excitement and anxiety that defined the summer leading up to veterinary school, I found myself at a screening of the documentary film The Cove in Hollywood, which I had reluctantly agreed to attend without any prior knowledge of the storyline. Within the film's 90 minutes, I was horrified, devastated, thrilled and inspired.

Heather Rally speaking at HSVMA event
Heather Rally gave a presentation about her work with The Cove and Project Gulf Impact at the SAVMA convention this year.
Heather Rally

Despite several years of working to protect marine mammals in coastal California waters, I did not know that animals were being brutally slaughtered by the thousands in the waters off Japan. This film not only redefined the genre of documentary filmmaking, it also instilled in its viewers—including myself—a sense of responsibility and empowerment. It was a testament to the fact that one individual really can change the world.

A few weeks after the screening, I helped establish a “street team” of volunteers to bring awareness to the film in the Los Angeles area. We struggled to keep the film in theaters, disseminated information at every possible screening, and watched in amazement as audiences and the world began to transform. Our work for The Cove quickly became a driving force in my life both inside and outside of school.

The Hump

After many months of working outside theaters, we decided to take our activism to a new level. In October 2009, a member of the non-profit organization, Sea Shepherd, informed us that a restaurant in Santa Monica, California, was selling whale meat sushi illegally―at top dollar―to VIP customers. This restaurant was appropriately named, "The Hump".

With director Louie Psihoyos and a few other filmmakers from The Cove in town for their recent Oscar nomination, an undercover operation was planned. Psihoyos notified the fisheries division of the federal government and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and our team was assembled. A fellow activist and I proceeded to dine at the restaurant twice, equipped with hidden cameras and microphones, which the rest of the team monitored remotely. We ate two meals which included items such as raw horse meat, sperm duct soup, blowfish and whale. We managed to covertly swipe samples of the whale meat off of our plates to send in for DNA analysis, and what we discovered was astonishing. Not only had I eaten whale, I had eaten an endangered species, the Sei whale.

The day after Psihoyos accepted an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary of 2009, our undercover story landed a spot on the front page of the New York Times. The restaurant owner and chef were prosecuted for the violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and a strong message was sent to the world regarding the serious consequences faced for disregarding animal protection laws. Thanks to the work of geneticist Scott Baker at the University of Oregon, the mitochondrial DNA of the samples collected would later be traced back to Japanese populations, thus proving that a direct violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species had also occurred.

Project Gulf Impact

As I approached the end of my first year of veterinary school, the Gulf of Mexico was struck with an oil spill that would prove to be the largest in U.S. history. With several years of experience in wildlife rehabilitation, I was sure I would be able to land a summer volunteer position helping in the Gulf, but I never heard back from a single organization I contacted. However, in June, I received a call from an old friend and brilliant filmmaker, Gavin Garrison, with an intriguing proposition—to accompany actor Matt Smith, who had contacted Gavin through a mutual friend, to the Gulf to document the climate surrounding the oil spill. We left on 24 hours notice, with little anticipation of the fact that this unexpected road trip would turn into a year-long upheaval.

After just one week in the Gulf of Mexico, we began to understand the extent of the devastation and learned that the prospect of recovery was distant, at best. The discoveries we made within days of arriving were so shocking that we became completely enthralled and deeply invested in the disaster; it was a reality-shifting experience. We were welcomed, fed, and housed as if we were family by a community that could barely afford to feed itself. It became evident that we could not, in good conscience, turn our backs on the people of the Gulf coast who had invested a great deal hope and trust in us. It was then that I made the very difficult decision to put my life and career path on hold to see this project through.

We returned to California for a few weeks, and I applied for a year-long deferment from vet school. The faculty at Western responded with outstanding enthusiasm and support, to which I ultimately owe the existence and success of Project Gulf Impact, the non-profit organization that Gavin, Matt and I established to raise funding and support our work in the Gulf.

Project Gulf Impact focuses on documenting and providing monetary support for residents ailing economically and physically from the ongoing impact of the greatest man-made environmental disaster of our time. Our group recently helped organize and participate in The Road to Washington, a march from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., led by Cherri Foytlin, a Gulf Coast resident, to spread awareness about the ongoing impact of the disaster in the month leading up to the one-year anniversary of the oil spill.

Looking ahead

The oil spill has left the Gulf region in an environmental, economic and healthcare crisis that will ripple into the future for many generations to come. In terms of animal health and welfare, the impact has been devastating. The most recent example of this has been the extraordinarily high number of baby dolphins found dead on Mississippi and Alabama coasts.

I plan to continue my work with Project Gulf Impact to help remind Gulf residents that their country has not abandoned them at the height of their struggle. Although I will be returning to Western University in the fall to continue my veterinary training, I will work to keep this tragedy in the national spotlight as both a veterinary student and an activist.

Heather Rally is a student in the class of 2014 at Western University of Health Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine.