Elephant seal pups being tube fed

No matter where you live, there is wildlife that needs to be rescued and rehabilitated. In most places, that means a fledgling bird or an injured squirrel, but in Northern California, there’s a rescue with a much bigger specialty. Since 1975, The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, has been taking in distressed seals and sea lions, and more animals need their help now than ever before.

"This year has been a record-breaking year," says Dr. Shawn Johnson, the center’s director of veterinary science. By mid-June, 617 animals had already been taken in — more than their usual average of around 600 for the entire year.

Early Arrivals and Other Problems

In the spring, the rescuers typically assist local harbor seal and elephant seal pups that have been separated from their moms or aren’t thriving once weaned, but this year they got some unexpected visitors as well.

"This spring was extra busy because we got so many elephant seals and an abnormal number of harbor seals, and then what put us over the top was all the sea lions we were getting early in the year," Johnson says.

Usually the busy season for sea lions doesn’t start until late summer, because unlike seals, sea lions are migratory. They breed in Southern California and later come up north. But this year, they arrived early. "We’ve had over a couple hundred sea lions that we normally don’t get in the spring, for reasons that haven’t been completely explained, but it looks like it’s because there’s been a deficit of fish in Southern California," he says.

Unable to find food, the pups are arriving in the center’s rescue area on the verge of starvation. "The little sea lions we’re getting in right now are about 15 kilos [33 pounds]. They should be double that — 30 or 40 kilos [66 to 88 pounds]," Johnson explains. "They’re extremely stunted and emaciated."

They’ve also taken in a record number of elephant seal pups, which breed nearby, possibly because they are also having trouble finding food. "They are nursed for about 28 days, and then the mom says, ‘See you, I’m out of here,’ and leaves this fat pup on the beach," he says. "They have about a month’s worth of energy to figure out how to survive on their own."

Aside from the pups, the center has found an unusually large number of adult sea lions affected by a toxin called domoic acid, which is produced by an algae and accumulates in fish. "It doesn’t affect the fish, but then the sea lion eats the fish, the toxin goes into the brain and causes brain damage and seizures," he says.

Helping Hands

On their busiest day so far, the center had 223 animals at once, most of which needed to be fed three or four times a day for about six to eight weeks each. The numbers strain the water filtration system, as well as the food and electricity budget — a challenge for an organization running almost entirely on donations. And it’s way too many animals for only about 15 animal-care staff to handle. Fortunately, the center has a crew of more than 1,000 dedicated volunteers. "Every day has a day and night crew of 30 or 40 people," Johnson says.

To deal with the crush, help also came from far away. Bernadette Maciol, a veterinary technician at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, was there for more than a week at the height of the season. The biggest job, of course, was the feeding — which is complicated when most of the animals come in too weak to eat.

"They would grind up over a thousand pounds of fish a day with formula and a vitamin supplement, and you would work in teams to take a feeding tube and pass it down the animal’s esophagus," she says.

Learning to Fish

Three seals on beach

Once an animal gets strong enough, it needs to be switched over to a more natural diet, at an appropriate rate for each individual. "Eventually, they start transitioning from that formula onto the fish," Maciol says. "It might start out as just a head and supplement with the gruel, then maybe the next day, two or three fish and supplement with the gruel."

However, the animals can’t be released until they can find their own meal. "The goal is to get them eating fish in the water," she says. "You reach the point where you can just toss the fish into the water, and the animals will come and forage and compete for that fish on their own."

Young sea lions usually already know how to hunt, but seals sometimes require what the center calls "Fish School." "We’ll tie a string to a fish and pull it across the pool and make it look like it’s swimming, or we’ll hold the fish with a long pair of tongs and wave it around underwater," Johnson says. "And then one day, this light bulb turns on in their brain, and they figure out, ‘Oh, that’s food. I’m supposed to eat it.’"

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

Although Maciol has experience with marine mammals in captivity, working with wild animals is different. At the aquarium, she explains, "we want to make them comfortable around people, because this is their home. In the wild, fearing humans is not necessarily a bad thing, so you don’t want to build a relationship with animals that you’re trying to rehabilitate and release to the wild."

Johnson says rescuers have to make a special effort to make sure sea lions don’t become too comfortable around them. "The sea lions can become habituated very quickly to humans — that’s why they’re such great show animals at the parks," he says. "We keep our sea lions isolated, where they have very little human contact. The volunteers go in and feed them and leave, and they don’t talk around the animals."

In contrast, the elephant seals tend not to become habituated, perhaps partly because the experience, although necessary for their recovery, isn’t particularly pleasant. "We restrain them for tube feeding," Johnson explains. "The bigger animals, it can take two people to restrain them. They don’t really appreciate it."

Not for the Inexperienced

Unlike Maciol, most of the volunteers who help with this very hands-on work have little or no animal experience when they start, and they are trained by the center in everything from making the food and feeding to, if they are interested, giving injections and medications. Other volunteers help transport the animals — another very big job.

"We cover 600 miles of coastline. We have two satellite facilities that help do triage in the southern part of our range," Johnson says. "We have 13 trucks, and they were going all day long."

But it’s important to note these are animals that an untrained person shouldn’t get close to, even if they are in distress. "These are dangerous animals even when they’re sick," he says. "They can bite you, and their bites can be really severe. If you come upon a marine mammal on the beach and it doesn’t move away from you, it is probably sick, but it can still be very dangerous." It’s also against the law to approach or touch them, so if you find one in need of help, step away and call your local marine mammal agency. On its website, Save the Whales lists agencies around the United States that are permitted to capture marine mammals.

Downsides and Rewards

Seal release

Rehabilitating these creatures is not only hard and somewhat risky — it’s stinky, too. Maciol was mystified at why her hotel was leaving so much shampoo and soap in her room until she and her roommate got some time off to sightsee. "We came back to our room and opened the door, and the stench hit us," she says. "We realized our clothes were so smelly, it was no wonder they were leaving [the shampoo and soap]."

But there are many rewards, some of which are perhaps unexpected. "The volunteers are really good at coaxing a seal to catch a dead herring and swallow it," Johnson says. "They really enjoy that part of their job."

And the best part is the thrill of seeing an animal return to health — and to its natural environment. "It was amazing to watch them turn around in such a short amount of time," Maciol says. "I can’t tell you what it’s like watching these animals swim back into the ocean, after where they were when they came in. It’s just incredible."