Growing up, Katie Touhey Moore ’86 spent summers on the water in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, sparking a curiosity and passion for marine life that continues today. “We were always exploring, playing in the creek, finding critters, and learning how everything works,” she recalls. That fascination stayed with her through her time at Wheaton College, where she took a cross-disciplinary approach to environmental studies by studying political science, economics, and the intersection between religion and ecology.
While pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management at Duke University, Katie volunteered to respond to marine mammal strandings off the coast of North Carolina and found her calling. “I started volunteering for fun and discovered it was what I wanted to do!” After graduation, Katie took a job responding to strandings for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, eventually taking over leadership of the non-profit Cape Cod Stranding Network (CCSN) in Yarmouthport, Massachusetts.
Unraveling the mystery behind a dolphin, porpoise, or whale stranding intrigued Katie. She seized the opportunity to understand these events better by gathering forensic evidence and analyzing the interaction between animals and the environment. As a global hotspot for mass strandings, the waters around Cape Cod, once again, became a place for Katie to follow her curiosity.
When she started her work with CCSN, the most common response to a dolphin or whale stranding was to euthanize the animal with the assumption that it was likely diseased. However, in studying the postmortem results, they found that many stranded animals were healthy, raising the prospect of saving rather than euthanizing them.
Katie and her team trained 200 volunteers to be first responders to strandings on Cape beaches. The volunteers stabilized the animals, righting them so they could breathe, protecting them from the environment, keeping birds and humans away, and reporting essential details to the CCSN so they could be better prepared when arriving on the scene. Instead of euthanizing animals, they started tagging and releasing them back into the water so that they could track their progress. The results were overwhelmingly positive. “When I started, 14% of animals that were stranded alive were released; now we average about 75%.”
In 2007, CCSN merged with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), bringing an influx of new resources. Stranding responders now have mobile blood analysis kits that allow them to do a complete blood count and chemistry on a stranded animal on site to assess its health, and carts to roll over the sand and help return a stranded dolphin to the water more quickly.
The merger with IFAW offered Katie new opportunities as well. As Deputy Vice President of Animal Rescue, she facilitates animal rescue efforts on a global scale. Katie manages IFAW’s marine mammal team; the disaster response team that responds to animals caught in hurricanes, tornadoes, or war zones; and the wildlife rescue team that handles terrestrial animals orphaned, or injured due to poaching or human-wildlife conflict.
Katie’s team has worked on extricating illegally captured endangered dolphins in Bahrain; helped orphanages in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and India rescue, rehabilitate, and release elephants; and combatted international wildlife crime such as live animal and illegal ivory, pangolin scale, or rhino horn trading. Katie brings her curiosity and understanding of the interconnected nature of animal welfare, science, culture, and economics to every situation she encounters. She emphasizes the importance of information sharing across cultures. “You don’t have to have fancy equipment to do great work. It’s about sharing what we know to save more animals.”
Katie recalls responding to a mass stranding of melon-headed whales in Madagascar in 2008. Almost 200 whales were stranded in a lagoon with a hairpin inlet leading to open water. Every day the response team would successfully push some of the animals out to open water, and at night they would all come back in. Colleagues on the ground suggested that they meet with a group of villagers to gain an understanding of what might be going on. The villagers only spoke Malagasy and lived in small huts with dirt floors, dirt walls, and thatched roofs, but because their lives were built around the river, they had the expertise that the team needed. The villagers described what they had seen over the years along the river, confirming that the animals’ behavior was unprecedented. The information provided by the villagers prompted an investigation, and an independent panel ultimately found that the stranding was a behavioral response to work ExxonMobil was doing offshore. “One of the best parts of the job is that you’re interacting with people from all over the world,” says Katie, “with folks who have a lot of life lessons to share.”