Tony and the ARK
Injured marine animals find their way back to health thanks to Tony Amos and his colleagues at UT’s Animal Rehabilitation Keep.
by Melissa Gaskill
Photos by Anna Donlan
Anthony Amos made his first survey of the beach between Access Roads 1 and 2 in Port Aransas shortly after joining the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in 1976. The wiry oceanographer — sea-foam-white beard and hair set off by a face familiar with the sun — has driven the seven-mile stretch of beach every other day since. He records data such as air and water temperature and has amassed some 5,000 observations of everything from terns to trash.
Early on, Amos came across stranded birds and sea turtles, some of the first ones coated in oil from the 1979 IXTOC 1 spill in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche. “I was alarmed and distressed,” he recalls. “At the height of the spill, almost every Sanderling sandpiper was oiled. I felt some relief when I realized it was fall and they were on their way south. Had it been spring, when the birds head north to breeding grounds, even a light oiling on their undersides would have been fatal to young, penetrating eggs as the parents brooded their clutches.”
Amos built enclosures for the birds and put the sea turtles in unused tanks in a small building on the MSI campus and the aptly named Animal Rehabilitation Keep, or ARK, was born.
In 2014, the ARK took in 1,291 birds representing 111 different species, four species and 776 individual sea turtles, 35 terrestrial turtles and tortoises of eight different species, and 15 species and 124 individual small mammals. Many suffer injury from some kind of human activity, including entanglement in fishing lines, strikes by motor vehicles on land or boats in the water, or ingestion of debris. Animals receive veterinary care as needed along with a proper diet, with the goal of getting each healthy enough to return to the wild.
A number of the sea turtles have arrived here cold-stunned; when temperatures drop dramatically, the cold-blooded reptiles become lethargic and vulnerable to predation and stranding. In January alone, the ARK rescued, warmed, and released 209 sea turtles. That kind of major effort wouldn’t be possible without a dedicated corps of more than 50 volunteers and the support of donors, which MSI director Robert Dickey attributes in large part to Amos’ charisma and passion. The charisma shows in Amos’ British accent and gregarious, unassuming personality — he’s happy to lack a PhD, having learned much of what he knows from hands-on experience. Those faithful beach patrols and his willingness to respond to calls day and night are evidence of his passion.
“Tony works very, very hard,” says Gerry Gage, who has been an ARK employee or volunteer since she moved to Port Aransas from Dallas 16 years ago. “He is good with people and has such compassion for the animals. He has done some scary rescues, things he has no business doing, but no one can stop him.”
Amos has rescued everything from skunks to 2,000-pound ocean sunfish. The ARK treats more birds than any other animal, many of them brown pelicans and laughing gulls. Most people pay little attention to common and somewhat drab gulls, he notes, unless it is to complain about what they take from picnic baskets or drop on vehicles and people, but the birds are an essential part of the coastal environment. In its first year of operation, the ARK took in a brown pelican with a blind eye, Popeye, and another with a badly injured wing, Goofy. “Popeye could fly but not see well, Goofy could see but couldn’t fly, so the two became pals,” Amos says. The pair is gone now, but 10–12 pelicans reside here permanently in a new enclosure funded by donations.
The ARK also has a few permanent sea turtle residents. In 1997, an 80-pound loggerhead sea turtle kept stranding on the beach. “In general, when an animal that belongs in the sea comes up on the beach, it doesn’t help to put it back in the sea. It was covered in barnacles and both front limbs [were] either bitten or cut off,” Amos says. “We took him in, removed the barnacles, and named him Barnacle Bill. He is still with us and now weighs 210 pounds.”
Amos records information on every sea turtle passing through and makes the data available to students for research. He gives occasional talks about ARK residents and hosts an annual open house. He also continues his regular beach surveys, recording air and water temperature, water salinity, and the type and amount of marine debris, along with picking up injured animals.
He tracks changes in bird populations, and has witnessed a banded piping plover, known as Bird #19, returning to this beach every winter for 13 years. That bird has nothing on Amos’ 38 years on the beach. Now 77 years old, he admits he needs to start thinking about a successor, someone to watch over not only the animals but also his vast collection of information. “It’s an important archive,” he says. “Over the years, it has changed from paper to magnetic tape to floppies to flash drives. I think my entire data collection fits on one of those things now.” Meanwhile, the facility keeps growing, the animals keep coming and, for now, Amos will keep patrolling the beach.