MYSTIC — Nestled on the floor with her son, Jack, her service dog, Marea, and several stuffed toy dolphins and seals, Heather Bring read aloud a children’s story about conservation at the Mystic Aquarium.
“Here’s a fast fact: After you throw away plastic bags, they do not disappear, plastic is forever,” Bring read, as Solomon Greenbacker, 3, of Meriden, who was hugging a stuffed harp seal, listened. “Plastic is not biodegradable. Sunlight breaks plastic into teeny-tiny pieces and these pieces float in the ocean and then are eaten by animals and fish.”
Bring, 36, who has had multiple health problems, has been a volunteer first responder and advocate for Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program since 2013. She created “Story Time with Marea the Service Dog” as part of the Mystic Aquarium’s Toddler Tuesday programming.
“I do outreach at the aquarium because I feel the more kids have hands-on experiences and can learn more about the seals, they’ll protect the ocean better,” she said. “You protect what you love and you love what you know. So if we teach them about these amazing animals and we get them to love them, then they will help us to keep the ocean clean.”
Bring suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic illness affecting connective tissue, and from Pseudotumor cerebri, a condition in which the pressure around the brain increases, causing headaches and vision problems. She has had Marea, a 3-year-old golden retriever, for almost a year. Marea, who has her own Instagram page, @mareasavesthesea, was trained by the Educated Canines Assisted with Disabilities, in Torrington.
“I have issues with perception and I get very dizzy, so Marea picks things up off the ground for me, because if I bend over and pick something up, I get very disoriented because my issues with pressure in my brain,” said Bring, who has had three brain surgeries and one on her spinal cord.
Because Marea loves to pick things up, Bring also brought her into the family’s conservation work cleaning up the beaches in Rhode Island.
“She likes to pick stuff up and bring it to me so we took that task and transitioned it to the beach,” Bring said. “When she’s on the beach, she’s working. I don’t want her to pick up just anything because there could be a hook in it or something, so I trained her that if I put my foot on it and give her the command then she will pick it up.”
With Marea’s help, Bring also picks up litter wherever she goes.
“She has her ‘pup pickup’ bag carried on her harness, so if I’m walking down the street and there’s trash on the side of the road that I can have her pick up, I can pull this out of her little pouch and have her pick it up and then dispose of it the way it should be disposed of,” Bring said, pulling out an expandable bag.
Marea, whose name means ocean tide in Italian, has also become the aquarium’s premier canine first-responder for the animal rescue program, joining Heather as the initial response to many calls from the aquarium’s hotline to determine the status of an injured or sick animal and helping the aquarium's veterinary team prepare for action when necessary.
Because Bring’s symptoms include postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, caused by insufficient blood pumping to the heart when she moves from a horizontal to a standing position, she easily becomes dizzy. Marea is trained to pay attention to her physical changes.
“If my heart rate starts to go really fast or if my heart rate plummets really fast, she’s sensitive to me and what my body is doing,” Bring said. “Today when I was standing up and somebody was reading, she came up to me and put her paw up on my leg, telling me, ‘Hey, go sit down.’ She was reminding me that I can’t do everything. I was starting to feel dizzy and my blood pressure was dropping pretty low — so I needed to sit down.”
Marea is with Bring at all times, carrying her medicines and monitoring her health, but the rules are a little different at home.
“She is technically always working, always in tune to what’s going on in me, but when we’re in home and she’s out of her vest, she’ll do her own thing, although she never gets too far away from me,” Bring said. “Just having her there and knowing she can go get my medicine bag — it’s peace of mind.”
Bring said having Marea in the family has solidified her family in a new way.
“Now that we have Marea, the three of us are a pack,” she said.