Ray of light: Joni Beth Gray Ray ’79

Joni Ray ’79 helps sea creatures get back into the swim of things.

Ray of light: Joni Beth Gray Ray ’79

Joni Beth Gray Ray ’79 scrubs Uno, a male loggerhead turtle before he was released in July. Found barely alive, he is one of hundreds of sea creatures she has helped rehabilitate near Port Aransas, Texas.

Ray of light: Joni Beth Gray Ray ’79

Joni Ray ’79 helps sea creatures get back into the swim of things.

Like any proud mom, Joni Beth Gray Ray ’79 will happily brag about her daughter, Lori Ray Wallace ’01, and grandsons Tanner, 2, and Colt, 3 months.

But she’s just as eager to brag on her finned adoptees — two dolphins named Harley and Ranger. They are among the hundreds of sea creatures she has helped rehabilitate through her work with Friends of the ARK — which stands for Animal Rehabilitation Keep, a Port Aransas facility that rescues and rehabilitates birds, sea turtles and other marine mammals.

“You become so attached to them,” she says. “It’s heart-breaking to see them injured, but when you see them rehabilitated, it makes it worth every minute of volunteering.”

Ray sometimes puts in more than 40 hours a week coordinating volunteers, raising funds, and performing other hands-on efforts, including scrubbing the backs of loggerhead turtles and taking the graveyard shift to nurse dolphins who were in trouble along the Texas coast.

Her husband, John, has also joined the effort.

“The turtles can get big — some weigh 150 pounds or more,” she says. “I can’t lift them, but he can.”

The first six months of this year, the ARK released 69 sea turtles, including two loggerhead sea turtles weighing 82 and 118 pounds respectively. Uno, the moniker given to the larger male, was found barely alive in the surf off Mustang Island on May 1, and Ashley was found under similar circumstances on the Padre Island National Seashore on May 29.

“People throw plastic bottles into the ocean where they float around on the surface,” she says. “But anything floating is food to a turtle. When we’ve done post-mortems on some turtles, we’ve found their stomachs full of plastic.”

For birds, fishing line is a constant danger and ARK does educational seminars with area schoolchildren to encourage responsible disposal of used line and other human trash.

“The kids get really into it,” Ray says. “When they get home, they lecture their parents.”

While she loves all types of sea life, dolphins have a special place in her heart. In February 2004, a young spinner dolphin was stranded on Mustang Island. Named Harley by the initial spotter who had a passion for motorcycles, the dolphin was moved to ARK’s 25,000-gallon tank at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.

“She wasn’t old enough when she stranded to have developed any social skills,” Ray said.
Rather than being able to go back into the wild, Harley would need a permanent home in an aquarium. Mote Marine in Sarasota, Fla., agreed to take her in, but getting her there involved finding an aircraft that would accommodate her tank and physically and mentally preparing her for the journey.

Stress can be detrimental to dolphins, so to keep her calm during the journey, ARK director Tony Amos did what came naturally — he sang lullabies.

“He grew up in England so he sang these wonderful English songs from his childhood,” Ray says. “They were gorgeous and they worked.”

About the same time, another dolphin was in trouble on the Texas coast — this time a young male bottlenose named Ranger.

“He swam into the canal by South Padre Island on high tide, but got trapped,” she says. “He was emaciated and stressed.”

Taken in by the ARK, Ray was in charge of organizing volunteers to baby sit him and make sure he got his feedings of sardines and other small fish every four hours.

Ranger knew when it was feeding time.

“He’d swim down to you, get on his side and start waving his flipper,” she says.

He was also somewhat sneaky.

“He didn’t like (sardines) so he’d take them to the other end of the tank and drop them in this one tiny area we couldn’t see.”

As he regained weight and strength, volunteers spent several weeks scouting potential pods he could join when he was released into the sea.

“We found three pods with babies so they’d have mothers and would be more accepting of him,” Ray says.

Ray and her husband got to see Ranger’s release from a nearby boat.

“As soon as he hit the water, he took off,” she says. “He swam a quarter mile down the channel then swam straight back at us, turned on his side and splashed me with water. It was like he was saying ‘Thank you.’ “

“We were all crying tears of joy — it was quite emotional,” she says. “He did join a pod and has been spotted several times.”

Ray never imagined she’d end up nursing sea creatures while she was a student majoring in medical technology at TCU. A graduate of Carter-Riverside High School in Fort Worth, she was part of a TCU family — her brother Mike Gray ’65, (MA ’67, PhD ’70)  is also a Horned Frog.

Ray was eager to continue the tradition, but ended up studying at Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Arlington for a couple of years.

“I always loved TCU, but couldn’t afford it for all four years,”  she says. “I remember it was $90 per hour and that was a lot of money in the ’70s.”

She finished her degree at TCU and found work at All Saints Hospital in Fort Worth, then moved on to manage the lab of a local physicians’ group. When a friend needed emergency lab testing for her dogs, Ray realized there were no local labs serving North Texas veterinarians.

Seeing an opportunity, she opened VetLab in 1984 and business grew quickly. She opened up a second facility in Houston in 1991.

In 1996, she sold the business to Idexx Laboratories, which operates labs worldwide. She stayed on with the company and currently serves as medical projects coordinator and research associate.

The Rays, who were living in Fort Worth, purchased a vacation home in Port Aransas in 1997, and moved there full time in 2004. Her connection with the ARK came when she took one of their dogs to the vet, who was impressed with her medical technology background.

“He told me he worked with dolphin stranding and asked if I’d be part of his medical team,” she says. She hasn’t looked back, dedicating herself to the cause and recruiting others with her earnest enthusiasm.

“I really love it,” she says. “Working with these creatures touches you in a special way. It’s amazing.”

On the Web: