Three nature centers. Three biologists. Three beers. Two goals: conserving the Rio Grande Valley’s wildlife, and alleviating hunger in the region.
Nonprofit Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge hosted “Beer with a Biologist” Thursday evening, a virtual panel discussion with three local nature specialists: Javier Gonazlez, a naturalist educator of the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center; John Brush, an urban ecologist at Quinta Mazatlán in McAllen; and Christoper Quezada, a visitor services park ranger at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Los Fresnos.
During the event, the men discussed the wildlife at their respective sanctuaries and the efforts currently taking place to conserve the native habitat of the Valley, all while taking occasional sips of their beer. As dozens of viewers learned about ocelots and redhead ducks and bobcats, they were encouraged to donate to the Food Bank of the RGV.
“I think this is the most unique event that I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of,” said Stuart Haniff, the food bank’s CEO.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased food insecurity across the nation, not leaving out the Valley. The demand of the local food bank in the past few months compared to last year, according to Haniff, is seven times more.
Brush notes that through difficult times, connecting to nature can help someone find solace.
“During stressful times, access to nature and appreciating just the little things that are around us — the little bugs, the little butterflies, the birds flying overhead, the house sparrows and pigeons and grackles — all those things are something that can bring us peace,” Brush said. “And how little acts of kindness likewise can really make a difference for our neighbors in our communities, along with larger things like giving to the food bank.”
Biologist Edward Wilson, in his book “Biophilia” suggests that people have an innate affinity for loving nature, which can be a source of happiness and comfort.
Brush added that at Quinta Mazatlan, an estate of more than 10,000 acres, visitors will be able to see a variety of habitats — forests, wild scape gardens, meadows — but “what you won’t be able to see is the amount of change that has happened.”
Quinta Mazatlán, along with the two other nature reserves, have fought to conserve thousands of acres of the Valley’s native habitat and protect wildlife. However, according to Quezada, 5% of the Valley’s native habitat is left.
Some recent initiatives include Laguna Atascosa’s Viva the Ocelot project. At one point, there were just 60 to 80 ocelots left in the U.S., with much of the population settled around the Laguna Atascosa area. Now, Quezada said with the help of the program, they aren’t on the endangered species list.
Laguna Atascosa has also rescued the redhead duck population from the endangered species list.
“I think one of the biggest things we are going to leave behind is our legacy, and in my opinion, the green spaces we leave behind are one of the most valuable things we have,” he said.
Gonzalez spoke with the birding center’s wetlands behind him. Though the reserve has switched many of their programs to virtual events, they are still hosting “Gator Talks” in person, three times a day while observing social-distancing precautions.
The birding center is composed of more than 50 acres of wetlands, and its alligator sanctuary is home to about 50 rescue alligators from across the state.
“As naturalists, of course our preferred way of showing people nature is live in person,” Gonzalez said. “There is nothing that can beat that, but this (virtual events) is giving us the opportunity to be creative in showing and teaching people about nature.”
For the rest of September, Quinta Mazatlán will have a quarter-mile long “Kindness Trail” decorated with rainbows and various messages of hope, open to the public. Brush said the need for optimism and unity has never been more important than now, and supporting the food bank is one way to do so.
Pre-pandemic, the food bank served about 64,000 people a week — that number has grown to 142,000.
“This pandemic has made hunger not just a lower class problem, but an unfortunate middle class one as well,” Haniff said.
September is national Hunger Action Month, and Haniff said the need for help has never been more critical. He added that one dollar helps the organization provide five meals, and that 98 cents of every dollar donated to the food bank goes directly to feeding people healthy, nutritious food.
“We are not only trying to make sure people don’t go to bed hungry, we are trying to make sure that people wake up tomorrow with hope, and that they have a more healthy, nutritious, stabilized life,” Haniff said. “We’ve seen the lines increase, we have seen them decrease, but we have not seen them go away.”