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Tony's Ark

Tony Amos' legacy of rehabilitating Texas' coastal creatures.

By Melissa Gaskill

Shortly after Anthony “Tony” Amos joined the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas in 1976, he began patrolling a 7-mile stretch of beach every other day. He kept at it, even after officially retiring from the MSI in 2003. By the time of his death at age 80 (Sept. 4, 2017), Amos had recorded thousands of observations of air and water temperature, water salinity, birds, sea turtles and trash.

Amos also touched the lives of many people, from fellow scientists to folks who had never seen a sea turtle before.

One of Amos’ best-known achieve­ments is the Animal Rehabilitation Keep, or ARK, which was created somewhat by accident. He came across oiled birds and sea turtles on his beach patrols after the 1979 IXTOC 1 spill in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche and brought them to the MSI campus, building shelters for the birds and putting the sea turtles in unused tanks. That ad hoc effort grew into a thriving marine wildlife rehabilitation facility with a sea turtle building and outdoor bird enclosures. The MSI renamed it the Amos Rehabilitation Keep in 2017.

The facility clearly met a real need. In 2017 alone, the ARK took in 618 birds representing 98 different species; 420 sea turtles from four different species; 33 terrestrial turtles, tortoises and other reptiles of five different species; and 232 mammals of seven different species. The ARK animals receive care for various injuries, which most often include entanglement in fishing lines, strikes by motor vehicles or boats, and ingestion of marine debris. The staff releases those that recover back into the wild. The current facility can house about 20 birds at a time and between 60 and 80 sea turtles long-term and several hundred short-term, such as during a cold-stun event. (These happen when temperatures drop dramatically and the ecothermic reptiles become lethargic, making them vulnerable to predation and stranding.)

Tony Amos

Responding to cold-stun events and running the ARK on a daily basis are tasks that rely on dozens of volunteers, but Amos alone rescued countless animals, from skunks to very large ocean sunfish and many, many birds, his first passion.

Alicia Walker joined the ARK in September 2016.

“I knew of Tony and thought of him as a hero. This is my dream job,” says Walker, now ARK program coordinator. “I definitely want to continue Tony’s work and legacy.

We are still doing Tony’s beach surveys on Mustang and San Jose islands, and people still call us about injured animals.”

Amos’ dedication to wildlife is legendary. He would drive 100 miles to perform a rescue, colleagues say. Also part of that legend is his independent streak.

“Tony was always on call 24/7 for animals, but Tony was Tony,” laughs Robert Dickey, director of the MSI and Amos’ supervisor, at least on paper. “He knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. Sometimes that ran afoul of the way we do things here, and sometimes even the common-sense rules we have to protect people. He was not the easiest person to manage, but that’s what you expect from people who are talented and passionate about what they do. Tony raised the level of everyone’s knowledge and engagement in the animal rescue mission he started.”

It was easy to overlook a little stubbornness when Amos was so effective at turning on the charm when needed.

terrapin

“He was very effective at outreach,” Dickey says. “Tony loved talking to people; he had a charisma and an ability to keep people captivated.”

Amos had plenty of other claims to fame as well.

“A lot of people knew Tony for the ARK, but he was a great oceanographer even before he came to the MSI. His attention to detail was amazing,” says Jace Tunnell, director of the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, since 2006 a part of the MSI. “He was instrumental in a lot of the things we’re doing now. He helped come up with the marine debris program. The Texas Adopt-a-Beach program uses the same debris categories he used monitoring beaches for 40 years.”

As coordinator of the Texas Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, Donna Shaver, chief of sea turtle science at Padre Island National Seashore, worked often with Amos rescuing stranded and cold-stunned sea turtles.

“When people thought about marine debris, rehabilitation of marine animals or people standing up for the ocean, they thought of Tony Amos,” Shaver says. “He was our local icon and inspired a lot of people to care more about marine life.

“There was no one who did a more thorough stranding form than Tony,” she adds. “He drew every barnacle on the turtle.”

His faithful beach patrols created a treasure trove of data, which Amos made available to others for research.

“I don’t know if there is another data set like it anywhere in the world, where one person has done one survey for so long,” Tunnell says.

Mr. Amos

Along the way, Amos found more than 150 messages in a bottle, and if it had a number or address, he contacted the sender. At public events, those bottles did a good job of enticing people over to learn about marine debris, and Tunnell plans to continue using them.

Born in London, Amos lived as a young man in Bermuda, where he met Lynn Cabrall, who became his wife of 59 years. Despite his extensive scientific work, including numerous research cruises and scientific publications, Amos had no college degree, a fact that seemed to please him and did not appear to hamper his results.

“He really made me want to be a better scientist,” Walker says. “But it wasn’t just about science — he was a really good person, too, the way he worked with other people. It was inspiring.”

Shaver remembers how Amos always made her feel at ease.

“He always took the time to talk, to ask how I was doing, in spite of his many obligations,” she recalls. “The first time I went to the ARK after he was gone, I felt like something was missing, and it was.”

pulling wagon

Even though Amos is gone, and despite the added blow of severe damage to the ARK from Hurricane Harvey just days before his death, his work continues.

Three Cadette Girl Scouts from Flour Bluff Troop 9699 created raptor boxes and sea turtle feeders for ARK as part of their Silver Award project. Lynn Amos attended the dedication and told the girls, “Tony would be proud.”

He would be proud of the others who carry on his work as well.

“The best way to honor him is to do the best possible job here with the animals,” Walker says. “We have a lot of plans for this place. We’re applying for grants, trying to raise money to rebuild and make it all Tony ever wanted. We’re working off his blueprints.”

Dickey confirms that Amos’ mission will continue.

“We are not only continuing the ARK, but taking it a few steps further, expanding the education program and the entire facility, and continuing patrols,” he says. “But Tony was an irreplaceable person. It will be a long time before someone can fill his shoes.”

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