maya rally

Striving for a more sustainable world

As the black screen of the television warms to an amber hue, the “Circle of Life” resounds with the glazing sun peeking from the horizon. What some recognize as the opening scene of Disney’s “The Lion King,” senior Maya Lee — who hasn’t completed a Disney movie until high school but has explored the wonders of “Blue Planet” and “Planet Earth” — sees “Africa,” the 2013 BBC nature documentary.

Growing up with dogs, chickens and a tortoise, Lee wanted to become a veterinarian as soon as she discovered it was a profession in second grade. Whenever her family would travel for vacation, Lee would ask to visit zoos or embark on nature hikes. Two years ago, Lee stayed at a bed and breakfast that also served as a wolf sanctuary in Yellowstone National Park. 

“That was one of the influences on my love for wildlife. I’ve always been attached to wildlife more than domesticated animals or livestock. I prefer larger animals like tigers, chimpanzees and pandas, and it has been a dream of mine to work as much as possible with wildlife,” Lee said.

During the summer after junior year, Lee alleviated her stress from the academic competitiveness in school and found environmentalism. To pursue her career as a wildlife veterinary surgeon, she would need to undergo 14 years of schooling. However, Lee is unsure if the animals she wants to save will survive in 14 years.

“I always liked the idea of nature and animals and treating the world well but never took much action or changed how I lived because of it. It felt very purposeful and gratifying knowing that I’m doing something that has meaning apart from school,” Lee said. “I realized what it meant to me and how it would impact my future. That’s when it clicked that this is something I need to rely on to be what I want to be in the future.”

At the end of May 2019, Lee volunteered at the Emergency Pet Hospital of Glendora and recently began working January of this year. As a veterinary technician, she prepares needles for IV fluids, takes vitals for initial examinations and answers phone calls from clients.

“The thrilling parts of being a veterinarian is less the paperwork but more about saving lives. Dealing with people is always a variable. Even if you give a surgery to a dog, you have no idea how it will respond afterward. Surgery is just something that might help save them, but in reality, a lot of what comes with the healing process is how the owner cares for them,” Lee said.

To be more environmentally sustainable, Lee adjusted her meals to follow a vegetarian diet on the weekdays. Originally, Lee allowed herself to eat meat on Fridays, but eating dinner with the pet hospital staff introduced her to more accessible vegetarian options.

“No matter where we went — whether it was Chili’s, Del Taco or Chipotle — almost all of them have a vegetarian option. Most people think it’s more expensive to go out of your way to look for meat substitutes, but it’s just beans, grains and vegetables,” Lee said. “I went knowing that I had to start off at a medium level.”

Lee frequents local farmers markets to purchase organic produce that have less packaging to minimize waste. Lee and her mother gradually changed their family’s diets to vegetarian, preparing dishes ranging from plant-based spaghetti with zucchini and bell peppers to egg fried rice with couscous and chickpeas. Because Lee has an iron deficiency, she eats meat on the weekends for iron but avoids it when she can.

“People don’t need to be vegan or vegetarian to make an impact. You can do things within our range of availability,” Lee said. “It’s not feasible if your family does not support you completely. I’m super lucky to have my parents completely back me up and endorse it.”

As the Environmental Care and Global Awareness event coordinator, Lee organizes club events, such as invasive species removal at beaches and in-class presentations regarding palm oil use. Planning these events encouraged Lee to be more sustainable with her everyday use, inspiring her to reuse common household items like bottles into plant containers.

“It makes me look for new solutions and channels creativity while keeping in line with something I’m passionate about. Not many of us think that when we drink our morning coffee, we throw away a coffee pod,” Lee said. “It’s forced me to keep in mind what I use and think if this can be changed before I throw it away.”

In 2019, Lee attended a global climate strike at University of Southern California in September and a rally along Santa Monica Pier with her family in November.

“It was interesting and fun in its own way. It’s a little bit out there and not always the most comfortable, but it was a good show of support. It was interesting to see what people are willing to do to grab someone’s attention to something that’s important to them,” Lee said.

On Instagram, Lee frequently spreads awareness about environmental issues by reposting stories from CNN Climate and Washington Post accompanied with a brief description. However, she recently began to post less because of viewers’ tendencies to prioritize entertainment over activism.

“Once you have a solidified group of followers who already care about the environment, there aren’t many who join after that. No matter what you post, the goal is to spread awareness, but sometimes, it stops at the group of people who already follow and not the people who it should go to,” Lee said. “When it’s on a screen, you can make it as big of a deal or ignore to whatever extent you want to.”

Lee’s advocacy for environmentalism has been met with students joking about hiding their plastic water bottles around her and Lee’s first period Advanced Placement Economics classmates laughing at her for using Ecosia, a search engine that donates its advertisement revenue to plant trees in regions in need of reforestation, instead of Google.

“It’s all in good humor, but you know they aren’t in it to change. It is subconsciously belittling, and it’s not normalized to put yourself out there for a good cause. Some people find it weird that some kid is super into art or painting or bird keeping, but if you’re into it, a lot of people use it for humor instead of something meaningful to that person,” Lee said.

On the contrary, Lee’s public support for environmental sustainability has garnered support of her own, receiving praise from seniors Nathan Chen and Aleona Quintua for using her platform to spread awareness of current environmental, climate and animal issues.

“You’re alienating yourself when you are publicly passionate about something, especially when it has a social, religious or political side to it,” Lee said. “People aren’t always as supportive as they think when it comes to being really passionate about something, so it’s nice getting support from people you don’t expect.”

As an aspiring wildlife veterinary surgeon, Lee aims to travel and work in sanctuaries and protected zones to track endangered species. But, until then, Lee continues to change the climate of environmentalism.

“We think close-mindedly, go to school and think Parent Portal is what we need to check. We think we’ll make a difference when we get a job, but why wait? There’s always something you can do now,” Lee said. “People might not take you super seriously, but they might just be super impressed. Can the thing you’re trying to fix or improve wait for you?”

By Sherman Wu, Staff writer
Photo courtesy of Maya Lee