Episode 122 – Suzanne Smith

Suzanne Smith has worked with marine mammals for over 30 years. Her career began at the world-renowned New England Aquarium where she was fortunate enough to gain experience with marine mammal strandings and training, dive teams, and the fishes departments. Currently, she serves as the Executive Director of the ARDCF. Suzanne’s project with the Amazon river dolphins has earned her awards in conservation. She has a passion for marine mammals and is a strong advocate for environmental conservation.

Website: https://ardcf.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ardcfoundation/

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Hey, Suzanne. Thanks for coming on today. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to talk to you and to learn about what you’re doing. So why don’t you start us off and give us a little bit of back story on you? I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. And I always lived near the ocean and my father always had a boat, so I was out on the water a lot. So I developed a love for the ocean and all of its creatures at a pretty young age. And I just continued to follow that path with whale watching. I had my own lobster pots as a kid, from my first job and followed it along, working at New England Aquarium in high school and all through college. I just have always followed that passion. Knew that’s what I wanted to do Very cool. So from a young age, like you said, because of where you were, you were always out on the water and learning about the sea life. I was. My dad is an avid diver, so all of his buddies were divers and having the boat, being able to explore Boston Harbor and all of the island and being able to see everything from the small, you know, horseshoe crab, all the way up, too, humpback whales. That was just part of my life, as a girl growing up and I was fascinated by it. That’s really cool.

So then, did you go to school for this? I mean, this kind of became your passion then. It did, and you know, it’s funny. I started off, I was actually accepted, as a marine biology major, to Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, which is about 20 minutes north of Boston. And that is what I studied for a couple of years, but found that it didn’t quite have the angle that I really wanted. I wasn’t into physics. I wasn’t into organic chemistry. That was just way out of my wheelhouse. It wasn’t until after my sophomore year, that I was really at a crossroads, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and after speaking with one of my professors and he made some great suggestions, and gave me some great advice that I never thought of,  I switched and became a psychology major because it was really the behavior that I was interested in. And a lot of people think that psychology is driven towards just people, but that’s not the case. It can be applied to animal behavior as well. So that was my focus. Yeah, that’s really fascinating to me because I’ve never really heard of somebody that has taken a psychology degree and focused it on animals. So tell me more about how that works.

So they are different, depending on what your focus is going to be. So, for example, mine with animal behavior. They have courses like positive learning. They have series of learning, even if you just look at like an abnormal psychology court. There’s a lot of these different thing, but you can learn about when you study be up skinner. Everybody knows about the rats that cross the bar, turns the light on, or they know about Pavlov and the salivating dogs, that is all psychology. So you get the opportunity to learn about offered conditioning, classical conditioning, so people don’t really put it together. And I didn’t either, until I had a real heart to heart with my advisor at the time and decided that psychology was definately the way that I wanted to go. Interesting. So you’ve got this major, right, in psychology and a minor in biology. And then after you graduated, what did you want to do with your life? So I always knew, like from a very young age, even though I was immersed with all types of ocean life. I knew that dolphins were going to be my thing, always. So marine mammals is really what I focused on. And after working at New England Aquarium, where I got to learn about rescuing and rehab of pinnipeds which is a hard field, a great field and anything in the pit of head family and also the patients. Because, of course, up in Boston you have that lunatic white dolphins. You have harbored a , so I got to learn a lot about that. But once I graduated college, I went on to work with dolphins and sea lions and harbor seals, at various accredited zoos and aquariums throughout the United States. That’s really cool. So you became a marine biologist working at the aquarium, where you kind of behind the scenes or where we have seen you out front and center the animals? You know that is a day in the life of a marine monologist. being out with the guests and talking about education, in a couple of natural history and things of that nature and the behavior. But, of course, it’s a lot of behind the scenes as well. Just the day to day care and preparing the food and things of that nature. So both sides of it are very important. Yeah.

So now from there, how did you end up down in the Amazon? Because I think this is part of your story that’s so unique, is you didn’t just stop there. That’s a career in and of itself. But you kept pushing for more. It certainly became more. So in 2013, I traveled to Brazil, as a part of another conservation group. It was actually a fish specialist group, and even though the fish weren’t necessarily, think, I was interested in traveling to the Amazon and being bored just learning about the rain forest, and I knew about the Amazon River dolphin. But it was the first time that I really went and had a closer look. A lot of the fish experts were off doing their things with the fish, I kind of separated myself from the group a little bit and went to go find out more about these amazing Pink River dolphins. So tell me a little bit more about this because I think I was telling you before we started recording I mean, this was my first exposure to the Amazon River dolphin. Tell us more. So these guys are super cool. They’re just the neatest thing. If you’ve ever seen a picture of them, they have really elongated rostrum, which is that now at the front of their face. So if you think of our Atlantic bottlenose dolphins here, everybody will always think of Flipper, when they think of dolphins. But these guys are really prehistoric-looking, they have elongated rostrum from being at the huge textural flippers, which are those types of flippers on the side. And they have an unfused neck vertebrate, which means they can turn their heads almost 180 degrees. Wow! That helps them be able to navigate through the flooded rainforest. It’s really weird because they’re the only species that have that. So they are super flexible, and there are known river dolphins, in the Amazon, where I have been, some of them are habituated to humans. So that’s how I was able to get my first close up look and I’m hook, line and sinker, I went for these guys. They’re just absolutely fascinating to me. So once that happened, I was just on a mission.

And in the Amazon, where I travel now, there are two species. They focused mainly on the Amazon River dolphins. Locally, they are called . So if you hear me say that the Amazon River dolphin and then there’s also, what they call the to kushi, which is a little gray dolphin. It actually looks pretty similar to our bottlenose dolphins, but there they are, right in the middle of the Amazon, in the middle of the country, in freshwater. So I’m fortunate enough to be able to see both of them. But they are very different. Yeah, I was gonna say, cause I mean, when I think of dolphins, I think of the ones that are in the saltwater. Right. So, I mean, I would think freshwater dolphins have evolved. I’m guessing over a long period of time, as you talked about, to be able to adapt to their environment. You are absolutely correct. Yes, evolution is a fascinating thing, isn’t it? And these guys have learned to adapt, over millions of years, to live in freshwater.

So what is it about them that really intrigued you? And you founded the Amazon River Dolphin Conservation Foundation now. So you’ve built an organization that’s really focused on educating and helping to save them. Tell us a little bit more about what their challenges are. I did. So there are so many challenges like we already talked about just from the beginning of my life I’ve been interested in dolphins. So to stumble across this unique species, I couldn’t help but just fall in love with them. I just wanted to know everything about them. And as I started to learn more about them, not only from the folks down there but just from my own behavioral observations is really an interesting species, right? So they are up against, what a lot of species of facing all over the world. They have habitat degradation. They have habitat destruction. They have pollution. They have boat traffic. There are river dolphin species over in Asia as well. And they face the same problem. But down in the Amazon, the Amazon River dolphin is illegally hunted and it’s a very sad situation.

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I’m curious, what did they use dolphins for? It’s a very complex problem, and it really should not be. So they hunt the river dolphins to be used as bait, to catch catfish. There is a specific type of species of catfish called the ParaKachinga, and they use the river dolphin meat to catch this specific catfish, and the demand is actually coming from neighboring countries. You don’t really find ParaKatchinga eaten in Brazil. It can be. But that’s not really where all of this catch is going, it’s going to nearby countries. So for some reason, they believe that the ParaKatchinga is more attracted to the river dolphin meat, which I understand. Of course, it’s oily. They have the blubber. And, yes, the catfish is probably more drawn, but they’re certainly different and far better methods that they could do to catch this fish. Interesting. Like, you said, they’re hunting dolphins to actually try and catch another type of fish. Not commonly here. Yeah, it’s a really bad situation, and you know some of these riverside communities, that are further up north of the Amazon, this is sadly how some of them need to sustain their lives, right? This is how they feed their families. This is how they make their money, and it’s certainly not sustainable. It’s not sustainable for them, and it certainly not sustainable for the river dolphins. So we are trying to help with conservation education, where we go to kind of help curb that. They don’t perform these practices where we go, but we are helping them learn more and more about how wonderful these animals are and how much they are part of the ecosystem.

Yeah, I really love that about the work, when I was reading more about you guys on your Web site. The fact that you’re really focused on these communities and trying to get the community involved. Tell us more about how that works, because I think that’s a really important piece of this. It’s not necessarily a case that I knew was going to be there, but it was just such a natural flow. So when I first came across these river dolphins and came across the first group of people that knew about them, they’re just so warm and so welcoming and you know, it’s a 3rd World country and the families of these small communities. I’ve seen communities with as few as 20 people, up to about 100 people, and sometimes they’re fishing communities. Or, they make arts and crafts and things like that, and they’re just trying to live day to day. And the more I’ve gotten to know them, we’ve just formed this really great relationship. And whenever I can help them, whether that be, I love to bring down clothing for them. It just might be baby clothes or school supplies, as you can imagine,  they are not schooled on the Amazon.

There are some communities that will have one classroom and that classroom, may teach children as young as five and may have adult learners, at night. So we like to bring notebooks and pencils and things of that nature to help them in their education a little bit more. And it has really become a beautiful relationship, where you know they see me, and they know that I’m the Dolphin Girl, and know that that’s why I’m there. But it’s become so much more, truly. They have become my family down there, and I have slept in their homes and on their beaches, and I’ve had dinner with families and it’s just wonderful. So it was really important for me, to forge those relationships and then by way of that, they can also then begin to learn more about the Amazon River Dolphin and ecosystem and why it’s all one big circle of, one thing depends on the next. Yeah, I really love that aspect of this, is you’re really involving the community and you’re educating people, which really goes a lot further, than just telling them the right way to do this.

Absolutely. We knew right from the beginning that was not the way to go, and it was not how I operate anyway. So I have found. I know we talked about this a little bit before. That you kind of see these things all over the world, where people go into different cultures and different countries and they think that they know better, than someone else someone that lives there. And that’s not the right approach. It does not. So Brazil is not my country, the Amazon is not my home, although I would love it to be one day. There’s so much to learn from them as well. I don’t hold the key. I don’t have all of the knowledge, but I certainly have over 30 years of working with marine mammals, and I can bring that to the table. But I learned so much from these folks, and it’s really nice to be able to sit down and to learn about how their day was, what they caught for fish and where they caught it. And in turn, they listen to me and hear about where I saw dolphins out on the river today and what they were doing. So it’s just become this really beautiful relationship, and I love seeing them, when I’m out there.

You get to go down on a regular basis. How often do you going down there? The crew is going about four times a year. I tried to do two trips by myself, where we can work on our research. So we are focusing on big focus projects right now, our photo identification catalogs and a population survey. So I have assistance down in Brazil. We head out onto the river, we pack a canoe and we stay out for about eight days at a time, before we need to head back to the city to refuel and whatnot. But then the other two times, I take groups down with me and I take about 20 people at a time and I put them on a big boat, and I especially just show them the Amazon. And I take them to where we’re doing a lot of our conservation work with Amazon River Dolphins. But I also take them other places. While I take them by the riverside communities, to meet these families and we get to play soccer or they learn how to fish and learn about these different things that they do. We take rain forest hikes and even though our main focus is the river dolphin. But there’s so much more, right, so you can see sloths. You can see these amazing cool birds. You can see Harpy Eagles or jabbering store, but you really get a merth, not only in the rain forest but in the cultures as well. So it’s really neat being able to take people down there and share the experience with them. I really love that about the work that you’re doing is you’ve really tried to engage the community and bring people down there on these Amazon expeditions. I mean, that sounds like just such a life-changing trip, where you can educate people about the importance of these things and the impact that they could be having.

Yeah, it’s great. And I think every time every group that I have, every single person and they come from all walks of life. I’ve had teachers. I have lawyers, I’ve had zoo-keepers and dolphin trainers. I’ve had all kinds of professions on the boat, and everyone walks away with a different experience. It might be the little kid that ran up to them and just wanted to hold their hand, as they walked through the village, that really touched their heart. Or the first time that they are in the water with a river dolphin up close and personal. And it’s a 300lb animal, that’s bright pink and you’re like, Whoa more, you know that’s pretty amazing, of course. Or this, uh, you know, you got to see a flock, a Mama Flock on the tree carrying her baby. Everybody walks away with something different and back to really what it’s all about for me, even though it’s mainly the river dolphin for me and the folks of these riverside communities. I really just want people to come down there and experience it and fall in love with it themselves. And they can see, just for themselves what needs to be done down there. And hopefully they are willing to help and maybe even become conservationists themselves. Yeah. You never know.

So when you look back upon this, Suzanne, is this where you thought things would turn out? It actually happened a lot faster than I thought things were going to happen. I had planned for a very slow, steady start in growing this organization. And things have happened a lot faster, which is great and there’s certainly snags in the road. You know, whether that we’re waiting for grant money or donations to come through so we can go ahead with our project. Or maybe it’s a snag with work visas, right, we’ll have our government should everywhere. We certainly still hit our bumps in the road, but we’ve been able to get a lot further, a lot faster than I thought that we were going to. And that’s really exciting and really promising for the future.

So I’m curious what you’ve learned about yourself through all of this process. You’ve done quite a bit over the last few years. What have you learned about you? Oh, my goodness. So many things. I have certainly learned how to survive on the Amazon River by myself, for a week. I do have one assistant with me, so I don’t want to make it sound like I’m out there by myself. But it’s pretty bare-bones and sometimes we’re fishing for meals. But I have learned to sleep in a hammock for a week on the river, wherever the boat or tree may be. So I learned to speak a new language. There are a lot of people, they’re learning a new language or a second language, and it’s not easy. And it’s humbling, so that has certainly been a big challenge for me and something that I’ve known that I can do. So I’ve learned that I may be a little more persistent and a little more hardheaded, than I thought because I just continue to forge on, no matter what. These dolphins and these people have my heart, so I will continue to help them the best way that I can.

I really think it’s amazing what you’ve done and certainly want to encourage people to check out your website, which is ardcf.org and certainly you’re on Facebook and I think you’re on other platforms as well. But is there anything else you want to mention before wrap things up today? I would like, to encourage everyone to learn more about the Amazon. Everybody knows what a big, fascinating place it is, and everyone knows that it’s there. But I don’t think people realize just how much trouble the Amazon is in. We talk about the illegal hunting of dolphins, but on a much grander scale. And I know everybody has heard about the Amazon fires this year, and they continue with mining and building dams. But there’s a lot of issues that need some attention down there and sometimes just traveling down there, traveling with our group, opens up your eyes. I really encourage everyone to travel, but come on down with us to the Amazon, so you could immerse yourself in the culture and you learn about these different type species and see what you can do to help. I think it’s getting overlooked. Definitely.

And I am glad that you came on today, so you could help people, like myself, learn more about this and what these challenges are. And I love the fact that you’re engaging the community down there and engaging the community here in the U S. To come down and experience and see this all firsthand. Thank you, Chris. Yeah, It’s a great experience and a lot easier. We don’t rough it. You’re in a really nice cabin, with air conditioning. I think everything, I was afraid maybe we’d be in hammocks. Now, I think either way would be a life-changing experience. And so I have to look into doing this myself. For sure. Well, I really appreciate you having me today, Chris, that we could talk more about it. Well, I’m so glad you came on today, Suzanne. And it was really great to talk to you. You too, Chris. Thank you so much.

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