Over more than two decades Peter Wallerstein has saved thousands of animal lives along the densely populated Los Angeles Country seashore. From gray whales trapped in commercial netting to sea lions sick from domoic acid poisoning caused by red tides, L.A.’s marine wildlife depends on Wallerstein’s one-man emergency care unit.
Well over 90 percent of the animals that MAR rescues are injured by human encroachment. “Domoic acid poisoning is exasperated by pollution,” Wallerstein said, obviously annoyed but without raising his voice.
But he never loses his missionary zeal. “I empathize with these animals. It hurts me to see them injured, but it gives me energy. That’s what keeps me going. The satisfaction of rescuing a single animal -- knowing that I had an effect on a life.” He has found his calling. It’s not surprising that he’s been a vegan for 20 years and a vegetarian for 35 years.
It wasn’t always thus. Wallerstein, 55, is a child of the sixties and, like so many in his generation, he spent a lot of time finding his place in the world. After graduating from high school in Tonawanda, New York, he put on a backpack and hitchhiked back and forth across the U.S. He sailed to South America and lived for a time on an uninhabited island. Thoreau-like, he lived alone in a cottage on top of a mountain in New Hampshire for two years, raising his own food and bartering with the locals. (Unlike Henry David at Walden Pond, however, he couldn’t walk home to his mother’s house every night for a slice of pie.) “I went in search of myself,” he explained.
Nothing quite clicked, so he packed up and moved to Los Angeles, where he started a landscaping business and spent his off hours surfing. In the mid-eighties, Wallerstein met Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an offshoot of Greenpeace, and suddenly found himself the director of the organization’s Pacific projects. Based in L.A., he started rescuing gray whales caught up in gill nets. “I had the TV on, and I heard about these whales dying. And I thought, oh, that’s in some other country, but it was right here in L.A. Dozens of whales were dying every year, and no one was doing anything about it.”
He left Sea Shepherd and devoted himself full-time to rescuing local marine animals, originally calling his group the Whale Rescue Team. Over the years, Wallerstein has developed a tool kit of rescue techniques and has trained lifeguards and other volunteers to help him. MAR merged with Friends of Animals in the summer of 2007, and Wallerstein is relieved to have his organization on more solid financial footing. “This is going to continue,” he said with conviction. “If I get killed hoop-netting a 300-pound sea lion, it won’t all stop. It will continue long after I’m gone.”
Wallerstein isn’t being morbid or self-aggrandizing, for he knows full well the dangers of working with large animals who are injured, frightened, or disoriented from domoic acid poisoning. He is schooling others in his capture and release techniques as well.
A few years ago, Wallerstein began documenting his rescues with photographs, and they are consistently powerful and poignant. He uses a simple waterproof Pentax point-and-shoot, but the effect of his photos is often mesmerizing. “These animals are beautiful,” he said, “and they’re in a beautiful environment. I want to get the message across that it’s important to care and to have compassion for them.”
It’s a message that he carries with him every day.