Stories of Survival : The Pacific Marine Mammal Center

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The Pacific Marine Mammal Center helps heal and protect the seals and sea lions of California’s coastal communities. 

By J.P. Freeman and Allison Hata | Photos by Wendy Saewert 

The Pacific Marine Mammal CenterStanding a safe distance away, a group of onlookers watched rescue workers as they carefully secured a stranded elephant seal on one of the local beaches in Laguna. Kirsten Sedlick, one of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) animal care supervisors on site during the rescue, was inspired by the observers’ tie-dye apparel and dubbed the small pinniped Moonbeam. Malnourished—the smallest elephant seal saved that year—and with tar on her body, Moonbeam was only a couple months old and below her birth weight at 58 pounds.

Safe removal from the beach is just the first step on a long road to recovery for animals at the PMMC. Sea lions, seals and other marine mammals, rescued from the beaches along the Orange County coast—from Seal Beach to San Onofre—are often suffering from a variety of maladies, including tarred coats, debris embedded in their bodies, dehydration and other illnesses and injuries.

Kirsten and the rest of the staff at  PMMC care for the animals under a unique rescue, rehabilitation and release model, all in effort to return them to their natural habitat. For Moonbeam, the program took a bit longer than usual, but she was a fighter, Kirsten says—the highest compliment you can pay a wild animal.

“Feistiness means you know they’re going to make it out in the wild,” Kirsten explains, recalling an incident when Moonbeam had her full attitude on display and lifted a portable fence at the center. Crowned “Most Vocal of 2008,” Moonbeam’s lively personality and determination to eat on her own had workers and volunteers at the PMMC captivated. Six months after her rescue, in September 2008, she was released into the wild at a robust 261 pounds—and Kirsten knew that the seal would be more than capable to fend for herself and compete for food and territory.

Each animal taken in by the PMMC has its own story of survival and a distinct personality to match. Here, meet just a few of the current and former patients that the PMMC is returning back to nature.

Pupping Season

A rare occurrence for the PMMC, workers were called to Dana Point on Nov. 15, 2012 to rescue a northern fur seal, which are much more common in Northern California and higher along the coast all the way to Alaska. Found in the rocks by the jetty on the harbor side, Oso was only a 4-month-old pup when rescued, suffering from malnutrition and dehydration.

Also unusual was a rescue in June 2012: Sage, a California sea lion, was just a couple of days old when she was rescued at North Crescent Bay after being separated from her mother. Eight months old at the time of this article, Sage was hand-reared by humans and frightened of others of her kind at first. A stuffed animal that she loves was used to throw into the pool in order to help teach her how to swim.

Oso and Sage now share a pen, where Oso most definitely thinks he’s the boss. “He likes to chase [Sage] around,” Kirsten says, adding that Oso is usually just having fun. “If he’s in the pool, he’ll kick her out.”

Although the PMMC’s goal is to eventually release animals back into the wild because Sage suffered from maternal separation at such a young age, she is considered “non-releasable” and will soon be placed at a zoo or aquarium. Although unavoidable in Sage’s case, for animals rescued and in hopes of being released, affection or attachment to humans is not to be encouraged by workers, volunteers or visitors, as they are wild animals and should remain as such to succeed once released. The pups can be adorable, but those who work at the PMMC keep their distance from the animals by using herding boards and avoiding eye contact and verbalization.

Spring to summer is the busiest time of year for the PMMC, as it relates to “pupping season” when pups are delivered in the wild. Each species has its own pupping season: elephant seals from December to February; harbor seals from March to April; seal lions from late spring to early summer.

For the first 24 to 48 hours of their rehabilitation, the pups receive a mixture of Pedialyte, Karo syrup, vitamins and minerals, which replenishes fluids and nutrition levels. All pups are fed through a feeding tube rather than a bottle to help minimize human interaction. Malnourished pups also receive formula every three to four hours when they first arrive to increase their weight. Later on, ground up fish will be added to make a “fish smoothie.” When healthier, they will consume whole fish three to four times a day.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center

Friends Forever

Although this was not the case with Oso and Sage, sometimes penmates become inseparable friends. Cornelius and Lora Lynn, California sea lion pups found just a few weeks apart in early 2010, became fast friends when sharing a pen.

One of the many pups that endured the 2009/2010 El Nino storm, Cornelius was just skin and bones (33 pounds) when he was found huddled underneath the San Clemente Pier. He was sent to the ICU where he spent several weeks being tube-fed and underwent fluid therapy, temperature checks and vital sign monitoring with what the PMMC staff members described as a quiet determination. A survivor, Cornelius ate his first whole fish just one month after his rescue and found companionship with the strong-willed Lora Lynn.

“They were closer than I’ve seen any of our other animals get,” says Wendy Saewert, an animal care team leader at the PMMC. “They would holler and holler, and bark and bark, until we would put them back together again. They were very gentle with each other. They had to be constantly touching.”

Wendy recalls how playful the two animals were with each other: Lora Lynn was the “quiet one,” and Cornelius took on the role of the protector, chasing birds away from their pen, she says.

When Cornelius began to show signs of curiosity and energy, the team knew he was ready to be released. At 65 pounds, more than double his weight when he was brought in, Cornelius was released on April 25, 2010. Of course, the bond that Lora Lynn and Cornelius shared couldn’t be broken, even after recovery.

“The two were so close that we had to release them from the same kennel,” Wendy says.

A Ladies’ Man

J.D.—named after actor James Dean—was another animal with a fierce protective side. Rescued in late 2009, the 130-pound sea lion arrived with a facial laceration and possible eye injury due to a fishing line wrapped around his jaw. Despite the extent of his injuries, he recovered with a grace and quiet determination that encouraged the staff to introduce him to a sea lion pup, Segway.

“[J.D.] took the younger ones under his wings, so to speak,” says Michele Hunter, director of animal care at the PMMC.

Segway, a small 40-pound sea lion recovering from a large cut around her neck, arrived at the center just one month before J.D. Though her wound was extensive and she began her stay in the heated ICU, after just one week she was sitting up and reaching to peek over the nursery’s Dutch door.

When J.D. was well enough to be granted swim time in a pool, Segway was just one pen over. The PMMC crew says the two took immediate notice of each other in a friendly manner, so they were introduced—the ability to interact with other sea lions is an important part of a patient’s rehabilitation process. J.D. and Segway spent the initial moments touching muzzles, swimming side by side and laying along the pool’s edge, and in the following weeks became inseparable.

The two girl sea lion pups he was most protective of were Segway and Laura. Outside in the pool pen, he would circle around Segway and Laura protectively. “When it came to eating, he made sure they ate first,” Wendy says.

J.D., a sub-adult male sea lion of approximately 4 to 5 years, would lean up against the fence that separated him from the pups, trying to be as close as possible, Michele recalls.  If the pups got rambunctious, J.D. would calm them down.

Wendy also remembers J.D.’s personality:  “He was quite protective—usually him on the bottom and all the pups on top of him,” she says. “Almost like a J.D. dog-pile sandwich.”

When all three animals were released on the same day, J.D. waited to make sure the girls, Segway and Laura, went first, and stayed with them, keeping them together until they reached the ocean, Wendy says.

As of early April, there were nearly 150 animals at the PMMC, the vast majority California sea lions. The average rehab stay is two to four months, though others, like Moonbeam, do remain longer until the staff decides they’re ready to be released.

“We love being in Laguna Beach,” Kirsten says. “Our volunteers are the backbone of the center; we couldn’t do without them. We couldn’t do without the support of our community.” As long as you hear the distinct barks of sea lions echo through the canyon, the PMMC’s work isn’t done—the staff and volunteers work tirelessly behind the scenes, both day and night, to ensure that all rescued animals can have a safe and happy life in their natural habitat. LBM


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