On the Wild Side

The Rare Bird glides out of its slip into the canal toward Cape Cod Bay. As she escapes into the open water, the ocean's perfume, a brew of salt and dead fish, wafts across the stern. A few miles west of the Sagamore Bridge, the lobster boat picks up speed and the engine's grumble reduces conversation to an adventure in lip reading.

Side by side at the helm stand two men who look like brothers, but who by all rights should not even be friends. The captain, Gary Ostrom, has a mane of curly red hair, a scruffy beard, and Popeye forearms bulging from his tangerine jumpsuit. Ostrom lives for the sea, day after day dropping lobster traps tied to ropes that double unintentionally as deadly weapons against one of the planet's rarest species — the North Atlantic right whale. His passenger, Fred O'Regan, is balding and also bearded, with a paunch hanging over his belt. O'Regan grew up in Winthrop, the son of a family doctor and a nurse. As a teenager he worked in a South Boston warehouse melting lead for old linotype machines, but the 30 years since have taken him around the world. O'Regan's latest stop is a quaint colonial office building on Cape Cod, where he's the president of the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). He is a New-Age Doctor Dolittle, wielding money, politics, science, threats, and gentle tact to protect everything from stray dogs in Arizona to whitecoat seals in Canada to chimpanzees in Uganda. And North Atlantic right whales off New England.

This day's trip is about finding a way for 60-foot, 100,000-pound whales to survive in a bay where ships the size of small towns barrel through, and thousands of dangling fishing lines snare anything big that swims past. For O'Regan, it's an especially delicate struggle. “We don't want to be the guys to shut down the lobster industry by filing suit,” he says. Ostrom grimaces. He knows O'Regan would go to almost any lengths to save endangered animals. IFAW has angered groups on almost every continent. Elephant hunters in Africa. Commercial whalers in Japan. Tiger poachers in Russia. Fox hunters in the United States and England. To its critics, IFAW is one more bureaucratic, out-of-touch gang of political rebels who protect animals with blinders on, ignorant of how their policies and actions might affect lives, jobs, entire cultures. “Hundreds of groups that use animals for recreation,” says the leader of one hunting organization, “can't stand IFAW.” But to its 1.8 million supporters worldwide who donate $60 million a year, the group is a fearless protector of the planet's most endangered creatures, from 19,000 oil-soaked penguins it rescued off the South African coast and saved from extinction, to the 300 right whales that spend as much as half the year in Cape Cod Bay.

In his four years as president, O'Regan has tried to strike a balance in each of IFAW's battles, avoiding personal attacks that might create enemies, and looking instead for “win-wins,” as he calls them. That is what resulted in his unlikely partnership with Ostrom, who is vice president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. Ostrom admits he's heard his members gripe about the fact that he has teamed up with O'Regan, whose organization may ultimately force them to make costly changes in their gear. But Ostrom reasons that it's better to work with IFAW than fight it, since the international organization has the money to stuff politicians' pockets and a track record that includes a stunning defeat of one of the world's largest corporations. What does the lobstermen's association have? A puny $100,000 from member dues and an annual fundraising picnic.

Rare Bird bounces over the waves, and water sprinkles onto O'Regan's brown street shoes. He smiles. His blue baseball cap with the letters “IFAW” is yanked low. Prior to taking this job in 1997, he'd never heard of the organization, one of Cape Cod's largest with 110 employees and 13 other offices around the world. He'd served as a Peace Corps director, ran a Cambridge nonprofit, hiked the Appalachian Trail, and may well have had an ambassadorship waiting for him. His experience with animals was limited basically to the cocker spaniel he'd had as a child. “Which I hated,” he says dryly. But he wanted a change, and now, after four years of witnessing what he's seen as IFAW's president, he's on a crusade. “I'm not going to be satisfied,” he says, “until we make animal welfare a household term.”

Arriving in South Boston after commuting from his home in West Barnstable, O'Regan looks stiff. Uncomfortable. It's not the effect of the long drive. It's the tie. Red with blue roosters on it. Nothing wrong with it. Just looks like it belongs to a guy who owns two neckties and wears them on alternating days. He's meeting with a furniture manufacturer to discuss outfitting the new $8 million headquarters IFAW is building in Yarmouth Port. It's a business meeting, so he's wearing business attire. Sort of. Khakis. Purple shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Rooster tie. Brown shoes. White socks sagging at his ankles. Riding up in the elevator, he winces and jerks his head when asked how he got started in animal rights. “Not animal rights,” he snaps. “Animal welfare. They're different.” Know those rabid activists who throw buckets of fake blood on fur coats? That's not him. Groups like PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — want to outlaw the use of animals for every purpose, from raising them for food and clothing, to caging them in zoos or using them for research. “He doesn't draw blood needlessly,” says former Lieutenant Governor Thomas P. O'Neill III, one of O'Regan's close friends. “He's not going to throw ink on your mink. He gets it. He's not an extremist. He thinks those people are being nuts.”

Maybe O'Regan is not an extremist, but some of IFAW's tactics before he arrived certainly were. In a 1995 advertising campaign, the group fought to ban Canadian seal hunts by showing the cruelty of using seal penises as aphrodisiacs. Next to a photograph of a severed human penis and knife, its ad said: “When it happened to John Wayne Bobbitt, it got worldwide exposure. When it happens to 10,000 seals, it gets slightly less coverage.”

O'Regan has avoided stunts like that, he says, to separate IFAW from more radical groups. “We try not to get sucked into the small ethical issues and get off our main focus — i.e., saving whales,” he says. “We're not a vegetarian organization. We are a combination: anticruelty and conservation. We don't get into arguments of whether animals have rights or souls.” He explains this difference calmly, so there will be no more questions confusing animal rights and animal welfare.

In the 10th floor conference room overlooking Boston Harbor, O'Regan nibbles on a muffin, puts on his glasses, and leans forward on the table. He may not be comfortable in a tie, but adapting to unfamiliar surroundings is nothing new. After high school in East Boston and college at Marquette University, he volunteered with the Peace Corps in Swaziland. “He's always stayed true to his values,” says Kevin Shields, a childhood friend who is now a Boston consultant. “It wasn't popular to go off and join the Peace Corps from our neighborhood. More popular to go into the Marine Corps.”

Back home in the mid 1970s, O'Regan spent three years with Community Action Program in Cambridge, then returned to Africa to head up the Kenya Rural Enterprise Program. “I became much more of a naturalist,” he says. “I witnessed the ivory wars” over African elephant tusks. From Kenya he returned to the Peace Corps under the Clinton Administration and directed the Europe, Central Asia, and Mediterranean regional offices. “In the Soviet Union I saw what it's like to have a situation where there's no environmental care whatsoever,” he says. “Complete and utter devastation.”

O'Regan, a father of three whose wife, Nancy, teaches bilingual education, says he was looking for his next move when IFAW approached him in 1997 about replacing founder Brian Davies. “I wanted a new challenge,” he says. “You get so many years on this planet.” He took the job, which carries a $225,000 salary, created a public affairs department to spread the organization's message, and made his staff realize their work is akin to running a political campaign. “We don't want to create oppositions and just shoot our mouth off,” he says. “We needed to get sophisticated.”

As his meeting about the furniture gets under way, O'Regan glances around the room and starts hurling questions.

“How big is your company? Can I just show my ignorance? What is steel casing?” He doesn't pretend to know more than he does. He's clueless and he says so.

“Everybody wants your business,” answers David Trainor, vice president of the company, Office Environments of New England. He stresses that the company uses environmentally safe materials, knowing that's what O'Regan wants to hear.

But O'Regan reminds him he's on a budget. The people who donate to IFAW, he explains, expect that their money will protect some adorable, furry creature deep in the woods of a faraway land, or an endangered seal pup with big, round eyes on an isolated glacier, not build a lavish office for employees to kick up their feet on oak desks and answer e-mails. “We are a donor-driven organization,” O'Regan says. “People give us their hard-earned money. I want to be able to look them in the eye and tell them we built the building we had to build.”

A quick tour through the showroom follows, where Trainor shows off fabrics made out of recycled soda bottles. O'Regan seems impressed. But no decision is made before the meeting breaks up. This is the part of the job he could gladly do without. The dress code especially.

three hours later the tie is gone and a navy shirt has replaced the purple one. O'Regan is relaxed as he walks down to the dock where Ostrom is waiting with Rare Bird. This, too, is a business meeting but the kind that drives O'Regan: an effort to befriend those who are leery of his friendship. It's a delicate skill, getting what you want without sacrificing your goal, while making the other guy think he got something out of it too. But then there are those battles in which the only victory is a lopsided victory, where one side emerges in celebration and the other sulks off angry and embarrassed.

In the late 1990s the Mitsubishi Corporation was planning to build the world's largest salt evaporation factory in Baja, Mexico, complete with generators, toxic chemicals, and frequent ship traffic. The plant would have required pumping 6,000 gallons of saltwater per second out of a lagoon and netted $25 million in annual revenues from the salt byproduct left behind. But it also might have destroyed the last undisturbed birthing place for the Pacific gray whale, one of the most popular whales on whale-watching tours because of its gentle nature. That's what sparked an all-out assault from IFAW. Led by O'Regan, the organization pummeled Mitsubishi and its $230 billion in annual revenues, drafting scientific reports, raising accusations of environmental violations, funding a consumer campaign called “Mitsubishi: We Don't Buy It,” rallying support from 40 cities, and getting mutual funds to threaten to stop investing in Mitsubishi. With actor Pierce Brosnan championing the cause, nearly one million complaint letters and e-mails flooded into Mitsubishi's offices. The company surrendered on March 2, 2000, when, after months of worldwide media scrutiny, the project was canceled. One news story called the win environmentalists' most significant victory of their generation, and IFAW, after 30 years of baby steps and small victories, was suddenly on the same field with Greenpeace — with O'Regan leading the charge. Yet sitting in his office in Yarmouth Port, surrounded by pictures of whales, birds, elephants, and bears, he leans back in his chair at the memory, clasps his hands behind his head, and remembers this about the fight with Mitsubishi: “As much as we were slamming them, we never personalized it.”

While not every fight lands front-page headlines, they all usually attract at least one group that lashes out at the organization's methods or message. An educational video, called Waiting at the Edge, tells the story of how the U.S. ban on importing seal products has crippled the economy of the Inuit Indians in the Canadian Arctic. “The International Fund for Animal Welfare was the first group to start anti-seal campaigns and still, year after year, they're doing protests, sensational media campaigns, and raising millions of dollars,” Allan Herzcovice, vice president of the Fur Council of Canada, says in the video. O'Regan acknowledges that the anti-seal hunting campaign has been one of IFAW's more aggressive but says: “We will never get in a situation where it's animals versus humans. There are a lot of poor people who have to live off animals. Those people have a right to their culture.” He chuckles at the Fur Council's agenda. If the U.S. ends its import ban, he says, the council makes more money.

Fox hunters, on the other hand, don't need to kill foxes, O'Regan says, which is why he wants to ban the sport in England. The image of the yelping hound scurrying through the woods after a fox has become as much a part of British culture as unarmed bobbies in their chin straps. But IFAW says its videos show the “true brutality of this type of hunting,” and calls the sport “outdated and unethical.”

When words like this accomplished nothing, IFAW spearheaded a move to contribute more than $1 million to Prime Minister Tony Blair, and got his pledge that hunting with dogs would be banned in the United Kingdom. Blair has yet to come through on the promise, which was secured before O'Regan had been hired. He says he might have tried a different approach. Nonetheless, it was a decision that still riles Dennis Foster, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, who disputes IFAW's claim that it's not as radical as PETA or the Animal Liberation Front. The only difference, he says, is in how IFAW spins its public image. “IFAW got going by capitalizing on baby seals,” he says. “They're very good at showing what looks to be cruel, but they're not showing the real situation. There's no question anybody who beats a baby seal needs their head examined, but that's not the norm.”

The fox hunting debate is also not the norm for IFAW, which more typically goes after saving endangered animals. When a 10-year ban on ivory trading was lifted in three African countries, allowing them to sell stockpiled ivory to Japan, IFAW argued that poaching would increase; sure enough, the group says, 700 pounds of illegal ivory apparently was taken from 23 elephants after the sale to Japan went through. With rare Tibetan antelope being slaughtered so their wool can be turned into high-fashion soft shawls, IFAW has used high-tech tracking to have poachers arrested. Even dogs and cats get the organization's attention. Its program called Dr. Dog brings dogs into hospitals to help cheer patients. From Arizona to Moscow, IFAW is working to spay, neuter, and vaccinate as many dogs and cats as its mobile units can reach to reduce the population of strays and limit the spread of diseases among pets.

Anchored several miles offshore, Rare Bird rocks back and forth as Ostrom and O'Regan chat about a plan that Ostrom has to save the right whale from extinction. Ostrom pulls up his traps while the two men talk, opening the doors and grabbing whatever's inside — a crab, a bizarre-looking fish, a clump of seaweed. If it's a lobster, he measures it and tosses it either into a holding bin with its claws clamped or back in the water.

At 20 miles across, Cape Cod Bay is as wide as Martha's Vineyard, a puddle on a planet that's three-fourths water. For various reasons, it's become a favored spot along the migratory route for the right whale. Two years ago, 143 of the 300 right whales believed to remain showed up in the bay. But it was one whale that brought worldwide focus on the local fishermen and lobstermen. The thousands of ropes and gill nets that they run from buoys down to traps arc up from the ocean floor like humps on a camel, making it easy for the whales to become entangled. That's what happened to a whale scientists named Churchill, and as it eluded rescuers' futile attempts to remove the rope and prevent a deep infection, concern grew about the dwindling number of right whales and the forest of fishing lines that lay in wait for them.

Churchill died in late September.

No animal gets more attention from O'Regan and his organization than whales; IFAW's research vessel is called Song of the Whale. IFAW's greatest battle is against the return of widespread commercial whaling in Japan and Norway, and, to bring the public in on the debate, O'Regan is one of the most vocal advocates for whale watches. He is especially proud of a new system IFAW launched in conjunction with the government that requires ships entering a critical right whale habitat to report their positions, allowing scientists to find the whales and alert the ships about which places to avoid.

Ostrom says he knew about right whale entanglements for years, and had heard the scattered calls to save the whale from extinction by shutting down the bay altogether. Whether that would even work is anybody's guess, but it would certainly wipe out the earnings of thousands of men and women whose livelihoods depend on Cape Cod Bay. Ostrom thinks he had a better idea: a less buoyant rope that stays on the ocean floor, and a sliplink device that breaks free under a certain amount of pressure. Knowing lobstermen and fishermen would balk at spending the money to buy this gear — at an estimated $8,000 to $10,000 per boat — Ostrom enlisted O'Regan and IFAW's resources to offset the costs. The sliplink is being tested now and may be distributed for use by January. “The fishermen thought these groups wanted to put them out of business,” Ostrom says. “Lobstermen get a bad rap. They're not anticonservation.”

O'Regan agrees. “The last thing we want to do is threaten the livelihood of lobstermen. If this works, it's a major thing. Because if I say to scientists right now, Do you think the right whale is going to make it, they say it's razor thin.”

But razor thin still leaves a crack for success. And if Ostrom's device can somehow save the whales, and make the lobstermen look like the good guys, it will be one more victory O'Regan has helped achieve with money, politics, science, a few mild threats, and plain old tact. “If you can't save whales and you can't save elephants,” O'Regan asks, “what are you going to save?”