By Johanna Droubay
It’s a Tuesday morning in Sausalito, California, and Dr. Claire Simeone ’03 is stocking her veterinary bag for the next day’s trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. She will fly to Kona to meet a new patient: a shiny black Hawaiian monk seal pup called Sole. Pronounced “SUH-lay,” the Samoan name connotes hope and purpose. It means “a young boy who is sent on an important journey for the high chief; a runner.”
Sole is underweight, and Claire suspects he was weaned too early. He’ll need a lot of fish smoothies and behavioral rehabilitation before he can be re-released into the wild. But before Claire departs for the South Pacific, she has another young pup to attend to: her two-year-old son, Jack. “He knows I’m going to help the seals,” she says. “Thank goodness for FaceTime and Skype.”
A conservation medicine veterinarian at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Claire also serves as the director of Ke Kai Ola, an animal hospital in Kona dedicated to saving the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Found only off the shores of the Hawaiian Islands, this warm-water pinniped has been around for 15 million years, but today its population hovers at a mere 1,400 seals. Nineteenth-century hunting devastated their ranks, and now water pollution, shrinking habitat, and ocean trash stifle population growth. Only one in five seal pups reach adulthood.
Our relationship with animals has changed. In a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forum earlier this year, Claire wrote, “For generations, indigenous communities listened to what animals had to say. For the most part, we’ve stopped listening.”
She elaborates, “In places like the Arctic, communities rely on the animals that migrate through the area: whales, seals, polar bears. The people have lived there for generations, and they have learned from these animals where to find food, how to be resourceful, how to survive. But most of us today, living in more populous areas, don’t have to rely on that kind of knowledge; we can just go to the grocery store and buy what we want, year round.”
And yet, there is still much that animals can teach us. As a marine veterinarian, Claire learns from her patients every day. “When individual animals come in, yes, we treat them and relieve their suffering,” she says, “but they’re also providing us with so much knowledge about what’s happening in their environment and within their species.”
The transfer of knowledge between humans and animals became the crux of Claire’s big idea, and her big idea became fodder for a TED Talk. This January, Claire was the first-ever veterinarian to be selected as a TED Fellow. Thousands of individuals, from every field of endeavor, apply for these fellowships each year, but only 20 are chosen. And there’s a reason so many apply. Becoming a TED Fellow means gaining a global platform for sharing an idea. But distilling that idea into 20 words, a requirement of the application, is incredibly challenging. “I really enjoy writing,” says Claire, who has published papers in an array of prestigious scientific journals. “But only 20 words?”
In the end, Claire’s big idea came down to just one word – a new word, a made-up word: “zoognosis.” It comes from the Greek words gnosis (knowledge) and zoion (animal).
It’s not only knowledge about animals themselves and their environments that transfer when we pay attention. In her talk, presented at TED2018: The Age of Amazement, held in Vancouver, B.C., this past April, Claire maintained, “It’s the potential for medical innovations. For new ways of approaching disease. For saving lives and understanding ourselves.”
Case in point: A sick sea lion can be an indicator of toxic algal bloom, which can cause seizures and brain damage in the human population. Claire notes, “Often, we’ll get sick sea lions before high levels of toxins are detected in water samples -- offering a sort of early warning system for humans. We work closely with the public health department, reporting cases so they can target their surveillance and protect human health.”
Claire thinks of marine mammals as the “sentinels of the sea” – canaries in an underwater coal mine. They are sending signals of distress, and so is Claire. Since becoming a TED Fellow, she has had the opportunity to spread her message in surprising ways. The more people hear and respond to her idea, the broader her own understanding of the concept becomes.
“I feel like I see it everywhere now,” she says. “People I've talked to will send me news articles and say, ‘That’s zoognosis!’”
In fact, Claire’s Twitter feed is filled with instances of zoognosis in the news. In one example funded by the European Union, engineers are taking inspiration from octopus anatomy to design soft robots that can move with octopean fluidity, making them more adaptive to real-world environments.
“I think we hold ourselves in quite high regard,” says Claire. “We consider humans the top species. But each species of animal is uniquely adapted to the space it inhabits. We can learn so much from them.”
Water connects us. Sixty percent of our bodies are made of water, and 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered in water. Water is also the connecting thread between Claire’s professional ambitions and those of her environmentalist father.
“He was in the Peace Corps, looking at issues like desertification and how humans are changing the landscape and how that’s all connected to water,” says Claire, who credits her father with sparking her interest in environmental protection.
Growing up, Claire followed her dad to zoos and aquariums, listened as he identified the flora and fauna of DC’s urban wilderness, and binge-watched David Attenborough’s nature programs. She laughs, “I was that little girl who carried around the Field Guide to Mammals of North America.”
Claire praises Potomac for rounding out her interests. She played sports, sang in an a cappella group, and performed in plays. She reflects, “I think it would have been a disservice at that time in my life if Potomac had said, ‘You're really good at biology, so we're going to load you up on science.’”
In her junior year, Claire’s Spanish teacher, Whitney Hermann, proposed a wild idea: studying abroad in Zaragoza, Spain. She says, “That hadn’t been on my radar at all. But it made total sense and really broadened my horizons.” She adds, “The teachers at Potomac were dedicated to making sure that we got the personalized education each one of us needed.”
Claire recalls her year in Zaragoza as a defining time in her life. Fifteen years later, she and her husband, Shawn, are making an effort to raise their son in a bilingual environment. “It’s such a gift,” she says.
After Potomac, Claire studied neurobiology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She went on to earn her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Virginia Tech’s Virginia–Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, never guessing that her interests in environmentalism and animal medicine might align.
With her heart set on becoming a zoo veterinarian, Claire moved to San Diego. She worked with the veterinarians at the California condor program and San Diego’s Wild Animal Park and then applied for zoo residencies but didn’t make the cut.
“I think that’s been a real theme of my career,” she told radio host and veterinarian Michael Tokiwa in an interview posted on his YouTube channel. “People think, ‘You must be able to do whatever you want.’ [But] I failed a lot to figure out what the right alignment was for me.”
Internships at the National Marine Mammal Foundation and SeaWorld San Diego led to an internship at the Marine Mammal Center in 2013. Now, as a senior member of the staff there, Claire has made her mark, developing a nationally centralized system for reporting and tracking marine mammal health. She also led the development of the center’s International Veterinary In-Residence training program, which trains about a hundred emerging professionals every year. Claire explains, “Marine mammal medicine is not a specialization that most schools have the capacity to teach. People come here from all over the world, then go back and share what they’ve learned.”
Still in her early 30s, Claire works in a fascinating field, is extremely accomplished, and has a down-to-earth, enthusiastic demeanor that could calm the most frightened seal pup or the most awestruck fan.
But wait, there’s more...
“My arms went numb,” Claire remembers all too vividly. “I felt a crushing pain in my chest.” A few years after beginning her tenure at the Marine Mammal Center – and only a day after bringing her newborn son Jack home from the hospital – Claire suffered a heart attack.
“I had never heard of that happening,” she says. “I didn’t know this was a thing that happened to some postpartum women.”
Peripartum cardiomyopathy is an uncommon form of heart failure that can strike during the last month of pregnancy or in the five months following delivery. It can go undetected because young women don’t fit the profile of a typical heart attack victim and because some of the symptoms mimic symptoms of pregnancy.
“It was definitely a wake-up call,” says Claire. “Going through veterinary school, internships, fellowships… I had worked at a breakneck pace for a long time.”
In moments of crisis, priorities crystallize. “I realize now that my family is the most important thing,” Claire says. But that clarity hasn’t led her to sideline her career. On the contrary, the birth of her son and her own brush with mortality strengthened Claire’s commitment to the health of our oceans, our planet, and the species that depend on these environments.
She says, “It’s more important than ever that I’m doing this work so that Jack can have a world that is just as beautiful as the one we have.”
In some ways, Claire says, motherhood and the experience of being a patient have made her a better scientist and veterinarian. She is excited about a current initiative at the Marine Mammal Center to expand enrichment opportunities for the animals that pass through. Claire explains, “Some animals have to stay a while to gain weight. What do they do while they’re here? They don’t want to just sit around all day. We hope to provide the tools that these animals need to learn new behaviors or to maximize their time here so that they're not bored. It’s really about providing a better, more holistic experience.”
The Marine Mammal Center also hosts educational programming for school-aged children, who, Claire says, have an innate knack for science. She notes, “Science at its core is observational. I think as we've become increasingly plugged in and reliant on technology, we've forgotten how to observe the world around us. Watching kids who come in for our educational programs, you can tell that they are natural observers. They stand with their faces pressed up against the glass; they make faces or put their hands up to see if the animals will notice and respond. We hope that their fascination with the animals will ultimately lead to a desire to learn more about them and help to preserve them.”
Leaving her house every day with Jack in tow, Claire sometimes loses patience with his curious investigation of plants and pebbles. She laughs, “It can take us half an hour to get out the door because we have to explore every little rock and look at all the changes in the yard. We look at the bunnies. Jack’s natural curiosity and observational skills have really helped me to slow down.”
The Hawaiian monk seal population is stabilizing, thanks to the work of Claire and her team. To date, Ke Kai Ola has rehabilitated 23 seals – about two percent of the entire extant population.
Despite the paralyzing enormity of today’s environmental challenges, Claire likes to focus on the positive and the possible. She emphasizes, “We really are all conservationists, and it does take a village. People should feel empowered to think about all the different choices they have in their lives. There are waves of change happening right now, and everyone can be a part of it.”
As for Sole, the starving Hawaiian monk seal, he made a full recovery at Ke Kai Ola – a name that means “the healing sea.”