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A lifelong love of nature helps Richard Esty set priorities and find solutions as chair of the Old Saybrook Conservation Commission. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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Richard Esty, chair of Old Saybrook’s Conservation Commission, has been an animal rescuer pretty much all his life. Raised in Old Saybrook by outdoor enthusiasts, Richard, his sisters Janis and Susan, and his older brother Irving, Jr., camped and canoed and learned about nature from their father, Irving, Sr., who grew up during the Depression and hunted and trapped animals to help his family get by.
Their dad “realized in the ‘60s that [humans] were killing off the animals, so he changed from hunting to photography and did nature photography and hunting with the camera,” Richard says. “And he knew everything because he used to hunt and trap.
“He was quiet,” he continues. “But when he talked, you listened because it was usually something really interesting. And he made it fun to learn.”
Their mother, Josephine, was an artist who would sketch the scenes she saw around them. While their dad taught them the names and habits of creatures, their mom would provide them with opportunities to make art from the things they found in nature.
Richard took the cue from his dad, who would bring home injured animals. If people in town found an animal that needed care, they knew to drop it off at the Estys’.
“If they found a baby animal, it would be in a box on our front porch,” Richard says. “We had a baby snapping turtle that hatched in the fall instead of the spring so we kept that for two years, named it Charlie, before we let it go, back in the wild.
“We had a mourning dove whose wing had to be amputated—it was hit by a car,” he continues. “It lived for over 20 years with us. We had an old black and white TV set that stood on the floor. My dad gutted it out and turned it into a birdcage.”
When the family would watch baseball and the crowd would chant “Lou, Lou, Lou” for Yankees outfielder Lou Piniella, the dove would sing “Hoo, hoo, hoo.”
Richard had a special knack for caring for birds.
“I was able to raise very small baby birds, wild birds, and let them go,” he says.
He took in a baby starling after it fell out of its nest for the third time.
“It couldn’t have been more than a day old,” he explains. “I was nine years old and I fed it every 20 minutes from about 5:30, a quarter of six in the morning, until 7:30 at night.”
Richard fed it first with bread and canned milk, then progressed to worms, ants, and spiders he collected. He managed to teach the bird how to catch and eat insects itself and eventually set it free.
At Central Connecticut State University, Richard studied animal behavior and wildlife management.
“I wanted to work with endangered species, breeding them in captivity and releasing them back to reinstate their former native range,” he says. “That was my goal. Then several oil embargo recessions came into place when I was going to college so that sort of ended for the need to make money and survive.
Today, he works as an operations trainer at Community Health Center in Middletown, a community-based primary healthcare center with locations all over the state as well as in several other places across the country. He’s one of five people who train operational staff.
Yet he manages to infuse his love and knowledge of nature into those classes, breaking up the material on procedures, technology, and work flows with short discourses on the ecological benefits of a beaver pond or the habitats most suitable for butterflies.
The Key to Change
Richard understands that education is the key to change. As Conservation Commission chair, he puts out a quarterly newsletter that educates residents about the natural world, climate change, the toxicity of plastic, and other issues. Each newsletter includes a short quiz to make it interactive and fun.
He also works with Youth & Family Services to provide educational programs for kids in the spring and summer.
The children “make bat houses and bird houses and things like that...And I will give an education about those animals. They go gung ho, they make them, they go out and hang them up in the state forest.
“We purchase kits,” he explains. “The bat houses have to be a certain size and a certain style for the bats to use...Small ones can house 20 to 25 bats and the large ones can house up to 100 or so.”
The children learn that a bat house “needs eastern sun so it can warm up in the morning, keep them warm through the day,” Richard says. “It gets them interested in knowing about nature and how it fits in with our lives.”
And the bats actually use the houses that the children make.
“Bats are unfortunately...endangered because of a white nose fungus that kills them over wintertime. They die during hibernation. When they’re flying around—it’s all echolocation because their eyesight is very poor—they’re always looking for places where they can...nip in. And when a colony gets to a certain size, if that house or place, cavity, or rock cleft is too small then they’re going to break off into splinter groups and go on and start new colonies. So that’s just like how we spread across the earth; they do the same thing.”
Richard is thrilled with the enthusiasm of the seven members of the Conservation Commission, as well as its student representative Joseph Bradley, an Old Saybrook High School senior who has set up a Facebook page for the commission, helps come up with ways to interest students, and is on a mission, Richard says, to recruit students to contribute to the newsletter.
“The Conservation Commission has a small budget,” Richard says. “It’s difficult for us to do a lot of the things that we would really like to do. We have a lot of ideas. [We are] all working off each other’s ideas and suggestions.”
Old Saybrook—like towns across Connecticut—is facing issues with waste and recycling.
“There’s a big issue with the waste transfer station because the plant that they use in Hartford is very old now and [Old Saybrook is] trying to find” new ways to dispose of refuse. “They’re limiting the amount of waste that needs to be incinerated, which means increasing recycling and reuse.”
So the Conservation Commission is working to educate residents about the four Rs: refuse, reuse, reduce, and recycle. That’s one extra R: refuse—and that means don’t use plastics.
“It’s as simple as that,” Richard says.
In late June of this year, the commission helped sponsor Plastics Free July.
“It’s an international organization that was doing that and we sponsored it with Essex Savings Bank,” he explains. “For the people who took the pledge to be plastics free for the month of July we got a special order of stainless steel water bottles for them as a gift.”
The recently passed state law that mandates a charge for single-use plastic bags and a complete ban on them in 2021 is a start. But the thin-film plastic bags that shoppers use to put fruits and vegetables in are also a problem.
“They make net bags,” Richard points out. “Those are reusable, they’re washable, they’re antimicrobial.
“Thin film plastic is one of our biggest concerns...[It] cannot be recycled with regular plastics. So your thin plastic bags, your garbage bags, your Saran wraps and anything that looks like Saran wrap that you buy food in...it has to be clean. So you have to clean it. Those all have to be recycled separately from regular plastics.”
The Conservation Commission has been working with the supermarkets in town to encourage them to prominently display the boxes in which customers can deposit plastic bags for recycling. And it’s working on further educational efforts for residents, such as a one-day film and lecture program to be held in the spring.
“We’re a think tank currently,” Richard says, “trying to think of ideas and how” to accomplish them. “But there’s only seven of us on the commission. We need to reach out to the public and get them involved and try to get them to support us at these events. So it’s all about outreach to get the support.”
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