I am saddened to note the passing of Jay Holcomb. As Executive Director of International Bird Rescue, Jay responded to hundreds of oil spills around the world including two of the largest spills in US history – Exxon Valdez in Alaska and Deepwater Horizon on the Gulf Coast. His energy and his commitment to excellent oiled wildlife care were unique in the world, and he will be missed by many. Through his organization, effective protocols to treat oiled wildlife spread internationally. Jay’s impact was enormous, and his death will not slow that impact down. Jay Holcomb lives.
I worked directly with Jay from 2002 until 2009. I was inspired by him and challenged. It was Jay who accepted me into the obscure profession of oil spill response and more broadly, wild aquatic bird care. I am grateful for those 7 years working with Jay and for the direction the time spent working with him has given my own life and work. No doubt there are very many people who feel this way.
I think it is safe to say that Jay placed more trust in his own intuition than he did in any abstract set of rules or protocols. He would easily place someone in a position of responsibility based on his sense of that person rather than her or his resume. This was certainly the case with me. When Jay hired me to monitor a small breeding band of the threatened Western Snowy Plover in Trona, a surreal dry salt lake mine in the Mojave desert, my credentials did not support his decision – I had been a wildlife rehabilitator in the Seattle area for only 3 years – I was not a biologist. Frankly I was disturbed by this. I wondered if he knew what he was doing. I was forced by these circumstances to learn what I could as quickly as possible. This wasn’t the last time that Jay did this with me. When the Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge in San Francisco Bay on a foggy November morning in 2007, over 1000 Surf scoters, Western grebes, Greater Scaup and others were coated in the bunker fuel that gushed from the vessel’s torn side. Jay was running the “washroom,” where the stricken birds were cleaned after being stabilized. At the end of the first day, Jay turned the room over to me. There was no time to argue. I did the best job I could. I am sure many wondered why he had placed such a difficult task in the hands of someone as un-noteworthy as I.
As with most who follow their own compass, Jay could be controversial. I would be disingenuous if I did not admit my own ambivalent feelings. In 2009 Jay and I had a falling out over decisions he made that I thought were damaging to our program and staff. I left IBR at this time, feeling betrayed. Ironically, Jay had once said to me that the large number of wildlife rescue organizations that had been started by people who had broken off from him in anger actually pleased him. He was glad to see our profession grow, even in this manner.
Two years later, while caring for scores of fish-oiled Brown pelicans with Bird Ally X, an organization I co-founded with others who left IBR in 2009, Jay sent me an email that he was glad we were “out there” working for wildlife. We exchanged occasional emails after that, until his death.
It may be odd to say that in Jay’s sickness was an opportunity, yet knowing he was gravely ill gave many of us a chance to reach out to him, to re-kindle warmth and to acknowledge and celebrate his profound impact. Jay’s death is a reminder to me, and perhaps to us all, that this world, damaged by people, is also repaired by people: not by gods, not by perfect beings, but by people – with conflicted, complicated mixes of motives, experiences, desires and most of all, a passion for the wild and an unshakeable conviction that action is necessary to protect and rescue our wild kith and kin when they are injured by our modern world.
I miss knowing Jay is out there. My grief is like your grief. We are glad he is at peace, and we mourn the absence of his life and breath. I wish him well in the next place his spirit ventures, and I wish you all well in the work that you do, everyday, on behalf of wild animals.
photo of Jay, January 2009, speaking to volunteers at IBR in Cordelia, CA. photo taken by Laura Corsiglia