Monday, February 27, 2012

Wildlife Rehab Success Story: A Seal Pup Comes Home

Photos by Robin Lindsey:

Sandy, outfitted with a satellite transmitter that will slough off when she molts. Follow her travels in the wild via SeaDoc Society. See link and story below.

It was late last summer when a very thin and sick seal pup struggled onshore in West Seattle, Washington. For most seal pups this might have been her last days - sick and slowly starving on the beach. While joggers ran by, school buses unloaded their students, and dogs ran off-leash nearby.

But this pup, Sandy, was lucky. And Sandy's story is a celebration of volunteer activism, wildlife rehab, and committed government conservation and education.
Sandy hauled out on a busy, urban beach that for years has been patrolled by an active citizen naturalist volunteer group, Seal Sitters Marina Mammal Stranding Network. Instead of just walking by -- iPods blasting in their ears, oblivious to the dramas of life-and-death on these shores we share with marine life -- Seal Sitters are trained by N.O.A.A. to walk the beaches with binoculars in hand. When Seal Sitters see a pup, they immediately report the sighting to the Seal Sitters hotline.
N.O.O.A.'s Marine Mammal Stranding Expert, Kristin Wilkinson, has trained Seal Sitters to recognize any signs of distress in seals, such as labored breathing, discharge, human-caused wounds, and serious weight loss. Although the seal population in Washington State is healthy, 50 percent of seals don't survive their first year.
Seals belong onshore as much as humans. It is normal for seals to haul out on our beaches. Here they can mate, give birth, nurse their young, rest, and regulate their body temperature. But onshore, seals face many dangers. Dogs off leash and humans are their main predators. In the sea, marine mammals struggle with pollution, overfishing, and scapegoating for dwindling fish stocks. Just this month, 7 sea lions and a seal were mysteriously shot on Pacific Northwest beaches.
When Sandy crawled onshore in West Seattle last summer, a neighbor called the Seal Sitters hotline to report a pup on the beach. Immediately, Seal Sitters' first responder took health assessment photos and emailed them to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife marine mammal biologist, Dyanna Lambourn, for a consult.
Seal Sitters surrounded the pup with yellow "Protected Marine Mammal" tape. Late into the evening, volunteers watched over Sandy, whose ribs and hipbones jutted out and whose fur sagged in wrinkled folds. While sometimes a pup will rest onshore for 12 hours or more, it appeared that there was no attending mom for this young pup. An intervention would be necessary if she was still on the beach the next morning. Whenever people strolled by, Seal Sitters shared their binoculars and educated beach goers about marine mammal conservation.
The next morning, after 24 hours onshore, Sandy had not returned to the water to forage. Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network, as an authorized agent of NOAA, determined she was too young and too weak to survive on her own. A trained stranding volunteer carefully took Sandy off the beach and up toPAWS Wildlife Hospital. There, she was quickly assessed as dehydrated with many cuts and abscesses on her fore flippers. Sandy's weight was a woeful 7.1 kg (15.6 lbs.); a healthy pup weighs 21-23 kg. Many pups do not survive the trauma of travel and ER treatment. But Sandy not only survived. She thrived.
Under PAWS care, Sandy spent five months nourished by medical attention and plenty of fish. Sandy had her ups and downs in rehab and was in the wildlife hospital longer than most pups. Washington State has no large-capacity marine mammal rehab facility like California and New England. And PAWS can only take a few seals each year. But by late January, Sandy was swimming around in her small pool, diving for fish. This once emaciated and sickly seal pup was robust and healthy. She was ready to return to the sea.
On January 19, 2012, it was a New Year and a new life for Sandy. Seal Sitter volunteers joined N.O.A.A., PAWS, and WDFW biologists in fitting Sandy with a temporary satellite transmitter that signals her location and travels. The satellite transmitter is held on by glue and will slough off when Sandy molts her fur. Such research is vital to helping us study the health of our Salish Sea ecosystem and marine mammals. Sandy was released on a remote beach far from her native West Seattle shore.
For the past several weeks, her satellite device has been reporting Sandy's explorations. She's spending time with other seals in rookeries or well-known seal communities. N.O.A.A. is working with The SeaDoc Society, who sends out email bulletins to anyone who signs up to track her daily journeys.
And now, Sandy is coming home. Her satellite transmitter has placed her very near West Seattle. Seal Sitters are out even in very blustery weather with their binoculars, hoping for a glimpse of this pup, who is a living symbol of how people and animals can co-exist. How we can learn from one another about this sea we share, this ocean ecosystem that feeds and nourishes us all.
In celebration of Sandy's homecoming, here's a short video link to her story -- from her first haul out last summer to her triumphant release.

Follow Sandy's travels on The Sea Doc Society tracking page.
You can see video and photos of Sandy's story at the Seal Sitters BlubberBlog link. All photos Robin Lindsey:
For more information on Seal Sitters:
Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author. Her sixteen books include the recent memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which was named as a "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of 2010" by The Christian Science Monitor. Her new book is Leopard and Silkie: One Boy's Quest to Save Seal Pups.
Follow Brenda Peterson on Twitter:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Who's Shooting Sea Lions? How We Scapegoat Animals

WDFW biologist Dyanna Lambourn examines radiographs of sea lion shootings. photo credit:
Robin Lindsey.

Dear Readers,

We are all very disturbed and mystified here on the shores of the Salish Sea about the sea lion and seal shootings. Seal Sitters has done many international interviews, with BBC, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, and other news medias. We are awaiting final wildlife forensics reports from NOAA. But there is a much bigger story here beyond the whodunit. See below for my Huffington Post on the back story behind this violence.

Who's Shooting Sea Lions? 
How We Scapegoat Animals

The violent shooting deaths of eight marine mammals on the shores of Puget Sound near Seattle is not just disturbing news followed around the world -- it's personal. And statistics don't tell the whole story.
For those of us who live near Puget Sound -- known locally as the Salish Sea -- these murdered sea lions and seals are a loss in a wider kinship and ecosystem. Indicator species, these marine mammals reveal to us the health of our waters.
This vital connection between species can make for good neighbors and volunteer science. Since 2007, our West Seattle neighborhood has engaged in patrolling and conserving our shores for both humans and marine life. Even though Washington State has a healthy population of harbor seals, there is a 50 percent mortality rate for the first year of a seal's life. Predators of marine mammals include dogs off leash onshore and humans.
During pup season, we protect seal pups who must rest onshore and warm up. And sea lions must come ashore to molt. Call it day care for marine mammals or just expanding our Neighborhood Block Watch to include other animals. Throughout the year, we keep watch for sea lions and seals as part of a larger stranding network. In 2007, our group of citizen naturalists, called Seal Sitters, received official training from NOAA stranding expert, Kristin Wilkinson. We are fortunate to work withPAWS Wildlife Center who tirelessly rehabs and then releases seals back into the wild.
Seal Sitters counts volunteers from every walk of life. Even some local fishermen, have given of their time and energy to help us protect marine mammals. So we recognize this is a much bigger story than "Who's Shooting Sea Lions?" or man vs. nature.
That real story is: Why do we scapegoat animals instead of looking at our own environmental impacts? Like us, seals and sea lions in our Salish Sea must also reckon with increasing development, pollution, overfishing, and global warming. As the marine life goes, so go we.
We must decide how to conserve our troubled waters; and whether to share our prey with other predators. Unless we are sustainably hunting for our food, shooting other animals is a simplistic, immature, and short-sighted answer to our complex ethical and environmental issues. A gun is never a solution. Education is the key. And getting involved. The Sea Shepherd has issued a $10,000 rewardfor information about these shootings.
The first time I ever witnessed the death of a marine mammal from a bullet wound was on my backyard beach years ago. A neighborhood boy, Zach, stumbled over a seal pup. The juvenile seal was panting in terror and pain. I'd grown up with enough hunters to recognize the bullet holes in the side of the pup's head and chest. They looked fatal. We called a local wildlife rehab center and a gangly man, Bob, came right out in his makeshift car/ambulance.
"Looks really bad," Bob said, after a quick scrutiny of the pup's wounds. "I can take this pup now to the rehab center... but the trauma of moving him off the beach will probably kill him enroute. Or... "
"Or what?" We instinctively knew to keep our distance from this pup protected by federal law.
"Or, you could just be with this pup. Nobody likes to be alone when they die."
"I'll sit with him!" Zach, a budding scientist, volunteered.
"We'll all stay... until... he doesn't need us anymore," my neighbor said.
"Good," Bob nodded in satisfaction. "Call me back when it's over and I'll take him in for necropsy. We want to report this violence and maybe find out who did it."
So several of us neighbors sat on driftwood about 100 yards away from the pup. Through binoculars, we watched him struggle to breathe, his great, wide eyes pools of darkness. But open. Our respectful presence seemed to calm the pup and he quit panting. But over the next hour, his breathing ebbed as more blood poured out of his mouth and nose. Still he kept his eyes on us as if to anchor himself for another journey, a dive deep into death.
At last the pup lay on his side, his little flippers unfurling like wings. One of the children started to cry softly, but Zach began to sing in his high and pure tenor tones.
Hearing is always the first and last sense to go in us mammals. Though the pup was fading, his head turned toward the song, listening. And Zach kept singing. At last, the pup's beautiful eyes fixed. Staring at us but no longer seeing us. Then for just one instant those eyes brightened, and then doused. The pup took his final breath and was still.
We didn't get to bury the pup, but we held a small funeral on the beach. Now these many years later, we Seal Sitters have buried more marine mammals than I want to remember. This winter's sea lion in our neighborhood park was shot in the lung and the head. Such a violent season of bullet-ridden marine mammals is haunting. Each shooting brings back the memory of that first pup to die on our beach. 

One of the ways we measure our humanity is how well we treat other animals. Let our humanity be remembered not in bullets or death tallies; but in how well we learn to graciously share our lands, our waters, and our shores.
Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author and the co-founder of Seal Sitters. Her recent memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, was named among "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010," by The Christian Science Monitor. Her new picture book with photographer and Seal Sitter first responder Robin Lindsey is Leopard and Silkie: One Boy's Quest to Save Seal Pups.

California Sea Lion resting on the shores of the Salish Sea.