By Oliver Lazenby
Blaine filmmaker Rick Wood spent the past five years making documentaries about endangered species. His most recent work includes several documentaries about animal species in decline, as well as a book due out in September called “Amid Valor, Hope and Fish Breath,” about his work and research on orcas, sea otters, manatees and other marine life.
This year, he traveled to Tanzania with plans to document the plight of elephants orphaned from the ivory trade, among other things.
Instead, after an accident, he ended up spending more time researching and learning about humans – he learned about the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, and the way climate change and drought is threatening the Maasai tribe’s traditional
way of life.
Documenting human struggles may seem like a departure from Wood’s recent work depicting endangered species. But to Wood, it’s all connected, and it’s all a product of his belief in the sanctity of life.
“The sanctity of life is huge to me,” he said. “This is probably why I do what I do.”
Seeing life abused in combat has shaped Wood’s life. At 18 years old, he was a door gunner on a helicopter in the first Gulf War.
Some days he flew aboard the CH-47 Delta helicopter for 10 hours, delivering ammo, picking up wounded or dead troops, and accomplishing a variety of other tasks. Though he experienced some traumatic situations, he said he didn’t process the situation at the time.
“I was 18. You can do anything when you’re 18; you’re superman,” Wood said. “At the time PTSD wasn’t even in my vocabulary.”
But the memories seeped back into his consciousness years later. He’d find himself unable to sleep, sitting in the dark with his memories – like the time his unit picked up six bodies that were so badly burned that skin was blowing in the wind.
While dealing with PTSD, Wood began to lose his hearing in 2003. Doctors diagnosed him with Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that results in vertigo and hearing loss. Wood is deaf in his right ear, and has reduced hearing in his left ear. A hearing aid allows him to have conversations in relatively quiet places.
The combination of hearing loss and PTSD sent Wood into a depression that he’s only recently sought help for.
“I ended up finally reconciling with the fact that my traumatic experiences have impacted my life and I need more help than I can provide myself,” Wood said.
Wood worked as a newspaper journalist from 2004 to 2011. After that, he helped produce the film “Fly Colt Fly,” a documentary about Colton Harris-Moore, the so-called Barefoot Bandit from Camano Island. Wood had previously covered Harris-Moore as a reporter, and one of his stories gave Harris-Moore the “barefoot bandit” moniker, he said.
After that, Wood began making documentaries on the subjects he’s passionate about. He’s a lifelong animal lover, and he wanted to tell stories about endangered species. He started with a documentary called “Journey Home: A Story of Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation,” which tells the story of an injured sea turtle’s rehabilitation at Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Florida.
By the time he finished that film, Wood was trying to eliminate plastic from his life, as nearly every patient at Loggerhead Marine Life Center has ingested plastic.
At the same time, he produced a web series about manatees, which were dying en-masse due to toxic algal blooms caused by the buildup of excess fertilizer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Next, Wood co-directed a film called “Fragile Waters,” about southern resident Orcas, which are critically endangered, in part because of a lack of Chinook salmon, their main food source. That film was selected for several film festivals and won “Film of the Year” at the Dolphin and Whale Film Festival in Dana Point, California, in 2015.
Wood’s next film, about the role of sea otters in an estuary ecosystem, is due out in October.
Last year, Wood read that African elephants orphaned when their parents were killed for ivory also experience PTSD, and he had to do something about it.
“When I read that, it broke me down to a point where I though, I actually need to do something about it. There was no question; I was going to Tanzania,” Wood said. “I had to get there as soon as possible.”
Wood funded his trip with a GoFundMe page, where he laid out a broad plan that included working at a domestic animal shelter, delivering school supplies to a school in the Kilimanjaro region, learning about climate change from Maasai tribe members, and spending time with AIDS victims. Researching and donating to a wildlife rescue center that cares for orphaned elephants and other animals was a core part of his plan.
The focus of Wood’s trip changed when he badly sprained his ankle at the beginning of the trip in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. He realized that with his injury, seeing orphaned elephants and learning about the ivory trade would be logistically complicated.
“The scope changed while I was there,” he said. “Getting around in Tanzania is not as simple as it is here.”
He spent time with Maasai tribesmen and saw the effects of a changing climate on their lifestyle, discussed the AIDS epidemic with those affected by the disease, visited an animal rescue center and saw black rhino, African elephants and other endangered species in their natural habitats. The stories that captivated him most this time were human stories.
This new project will be the most complicated story he’s told yet, he said. His recent films explore possible solutions to the crises they examine. This time, he’s exploring broader problems with tougher solutions.
Wood is interested in the future of humanity, and how the species will deal with a changing environment. Tanzania’s Rift Valley, thought to be the birthplace of humanity, gave him clues to the future.
“It will essentially be a story of us, mankind, and our future,” he said. “I can’t determine how the book ends.”
Wood hopes to share more about his trip, endangered animals, and the orphan crisis in Tanzania, at local presentations in the near future.
Wood is slated to appear at Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham to present “Lessons from the African Rift Valley: A Cautionary Tale of Hope” at 7 p.m. on May 16. No tickets are required to attend.