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Meet Sea Ranch’s champion of wildness and wild things

Kathryn Arnold answers the phone at her Sea Ranch home on a Monday morning by apologizing for not being able to chat.

A longtime volunteer for the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center, Arnold, 69, said she was being dispatched to help rescue an ill 200-pound elephant seal that had flopped onto Manchester Beach, roughly 30 miles north in Mendocino County.

Arnold wound up spending the better part of her day working in tandem with other volunteers to haul the seal off the beach and transport the animal some 140 miles across three coastal counties to the Marin County rehabilitation center.

“It was quite the journey for that guy,” Arnold said the following day, back at the home she shares with her husband, Michael Kleeman, and the couple’s two dogs.

Arnold’s journey to becoming a stalwart wildlife advocate is remarkable in its own right. An Army brat who grew up on a military base in Tennessee, she pursued a career in magazine publishing on both coasts before reinventing herself as a prominent champion for wildlife and ecological preservation.

“Our region’s natural beauty and diversity of cultures draws some remarkable people to make their home here, and Kathryn is a case in point,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit group LandPaths. “Her gentle voice and kindness are matched with a powerful pen, one that speaks for the voiceless -- wildness and wild things.”

Wild stories turn into Wild Hope

Wild Hope, a bi-annual magazine Arnold founded in 2014, reflects her mission of bringing positive stories of environmental advocacy to a global audience through the words and images of those who are deeply entrenched in the work.

The magazine has profiled, among others, a 93-year-old southwest Idaho man who by his own account has raised more than 27,000 bluebirds; a Chinese veterinarian who tends to wounded moon bears rescued from bile farms; and a center in Costa Rica that rehabilitates howler monkeys confiscated from poachers engaged in the illegal exotic pet trade. One magazine headline asked plaintively: “Can the Florida Manatee be Saved?”

Closer to home, Arnold has critical roles monitoring and protecting seals, shorebirds and other wildlife on the Sonoma Coast. She’s in her 20th-year volunteering for the Marine Mammal Center, a phenomenal record of unpaid service given the arduous and time-consuming demands of the work.

Recently, she helped lead a successful years-long effort to restrict public access to a Sea Ranch beach where seals haul out during birthing season. Fellow advocates say Arnold is tenacious, but fair.

“Kathryn’s one of the most impressive people I’ve ever worked with, and I don’t say that lightly,” said Sandy Friedman, a former zoo administrator and a neighbor of Arnold’s at The Sea Ranch. “She’s kind, she’s considerate, she’s knowledgeable -- and she’s also committed.”

Expanding horizons across US

Arnold’s father was a U.S. Army paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division who served in wars in Korea and Vietnam. The family lived at Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border and Arnold described as “pretty much a barren piece of land” developed solely for the basic needs of military personnel.

“It was not a wild place at all, but my father was an outdoorsman, which in those days meant he was a hunter and a fisherman,” she said. “We would spend holidays at a nearby lake. I was fascinated by the nature I saw there.”

After graduating with a degree in nutrition from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Arnold opened the city's first vegetarian restaurant and ran it for three years, before the venture went south. Itching to expand her horizons, she moved to Los Angeles, sight unseen, and enrolled in journalism courses at the University of Southern California. That took her to New York City and the start of a career in magazine publishing.

In 1998, Arnold crisscrossed the country again, landing in the Bay Area to take over as editor of Yoga Journal. She met Kleeman, her future husband, while he was serving on the Marine Mammal Center’s board of directors.

Kleeman, 72, currently is a telecommunications policy expert, a member of the research faculty at the University of California, San Diego, and publisher of Wild Hope.

Arnold said she was incredulous the Marine Mammal Center didn’t require her to have a background in marine biology in order to be trained as a volunteer. She soon found out, however, how little she really knew of the center’s work.

“My first day there, I realized I didn’t know the difference between a seal and a sea lion,” she said. “That was a real moment of awakening for me.”

Believing in citizen science

Living in Mill Valley, Arnold enrolled in a number of natural science courses at the College of Marin and began volunteering for International Bird Rescue in Fairfield.

Arnold currently is involved in a number of wildlife preservation programs along the Sonoma Coast. She monitors black oystercatchers, a shorebird that has been listed as a state and federal species of concern due to their declining populations, as well as harbor seals during pupping season.

With the Marine Mammal Center, Arnold coordinates rescues along a 50-mile stretch of Sonoma and Mendocino coastline between Fort Ross and Irish Beach.

“When she goes on a rescue, she’s patient. She’s a quiet leader,” said Laura Cortright, a retired marketing executive and fellow volunteer.

“If I’m not out there with a spotting scope looking at nesting seabirds I’m out hiking on 40 miles of trails," Arnold said. ”I’m always out there making observations and submitting them to iNaturalist every day because I really believe in citizen science.”

Arnold’s story is the kind she normally enjoys featuring in Wild Hope, which she founded amid frustration she felt over the mostly doom-and-gloom coverage of the environment in more mainstream publications.

“I was reading about the extinction crisis and it was very depressing. I felt hopeless, like this is really going badly and there’s nothing any of us can do about it,” she said.

Inspired by hope

And so she turned her focus on the people who are doing the hard but rewarding work of wildlife and ecosystem preservation. Her influences include Rachel Carson, a marine biologist whose seminal work, “Silent Spring,” helped spark a global environmental movement, as well as writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit.

Wild Hope has a print run of 3,000 copies per edition, most of which sell out online or in a select number of retailers. Sale proceeds are pumped back into the operation, which is a registered non-profit and has an annual budget of about $10,000. The magazine does not include paid advertising.

“I’m not trying to do a conventional publishing model,” Arnold said of the magazine. “I’ve been there and done that. It’s a real grind.”

Through the magazine and her advocacy work, Arnold said she feels more positive now about the role individuals can play in protecting wildlife and the environment - even if it’s saving one animal at a time.

“Just being out there yesterday with a group of people, trying to reach that one Northern elephant seal and take it to the Marine Mammal Center, where hopefully it will be treated …

“I do have hope,” she said. “I see signs of hope every day.”

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