Rocking in the Seal World
Mystic Aquarium Animal Rescue Program
by Gina King
I donned a pair of black rubber boots, slipped a pair of blue nylon gloves over my sweaty palms, and with butterflies buzzing in my belly I walked into the clinic. Not just any clinic – in fact not even a clinic for humans. This clinic is a temporary healing place for harbor and gray seals. I was here to learn about the Mystic Aquarium Animal Rescue Program and the work they do to rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals and sea turtles, particularly harbor and gray seals. The mission of the Animal Rescue Program which started in 1975, is to support animals in need, educate the public about the marine environment, and to inspire people to care about and protect the ocean planet.
As Skip Graf, Assistant Stranding Coordinator draws a needle to administer fluids to a seal pup that was brought in from Maine stranded from its mother, he talks passionately about the animal rescue program and the amazing life-saving work they do in the clinic everyday. The team concentrates its efforts on the coasts of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Fishers Island, NY, while also supporting institutions from Maine to New Jersey and even as far south as Texas. Some of the seals which are less than a week old have come from the Marine Mammals of Maine. “All of these animals came from another facility that is either maxed out or nonexistent; and without other stranding facilities helping out, animals would be left on the beach,” states Skip.
So what defines a stranded animal? According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act a stranding is any dead marine mammal on the shore or in the water, a live marine mammal on the shore but unable to return to the water, a live marine mammal onshore that is in need of medical attention, or a live marine mammal in the water that is unable to return to its natural habitat without assistance.
There is a glass window on the outside of the animal rescue clinic that gives visitors the opportunity to watch as the interns, staff, and volunteers administer medical care. Seal pups are held up by the staff from above their ICU tanks so that the public can see what a harbor seal pup looks like and snap a photo or two. In the middle of the clinic is a larger tank called a pre-release tank where seals that are on the mend and ready to be released back out to sea spend their final time in the clinic.I happen to look through the glass window of the pre-release tank where a female gray seal was rescued from Roy Carpenter’s Beach in South Kingstown, Rhode Island and is at the clinic recovering from respiratory issues. I see a cloud of light brown stuff that looks like dust blowing underwater. She pooped! Skip calls out excitedly to the researcher and intern standing nearby. All three rush to grab the net for a sample of gray seal scat. She dined on dog fish earlier, and Kathryn Ono an Associate Professor of Marine Sciences from the University of New England wants to see if there are traces of dogfish for a DNA identifying study she is doing. It’s a rare thing that her research would allow her to be able to do this in the ocean with a gray seal, so having one in the animal rescue clinic makes it very convenient. Analyzing seal scat can also help researchers determine if they are migrating and how far, based on the kinds of fish found in a certain area.
Mystic Aquarium is part of The Northeast Region Stranding Network which consists of independent organizations that are dedicated to caring for sick and injured animals. The goal is not only to care and protect the animals that are found but also to learn more about the reasons why marine life come ashore. Sharing research information and communicating with other organizations and facilities is an integral part of what the Animal Rescue Program does very well. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) enforces guidelines and protects species through habitat conservation. Stranding facilities such as the Mystic Aquarium operate under a Stranding Agreement issued by NOAA and are therefore authorized to respond to strandings of live or dead animals. Sharing data with other agencies about marine species is important “to see if other states are seeing different or the same species and any issues that come up,” explains Skip. “For example, if we are seeing more gray seals compared to the past..what does that mean? We work together and compare data with others.”
So what does a day in the life of a stranding coordinator, volunteer, and intern consist of in the clinic? Lots of TLC for the pups! Just like human babies seal pups get fed every three hours. The pups that are not ready to eat fish yet get a formula of protein vitamins, medicine, blended fish, and fish oil; and as they progress they graduate to small sea freeze or penguin herring that is weighed in an amount proportionate to their eating capabilities.When the feedings are over, the interns and volunteers prepare food for the next feeding,whether it’s making more formula, weighing out fish,or making a tasty gruel smoothie of fish and vitamins. Some of the seals come in sicker than others and need more attention. Medical care and staff, under the supervision of the veterinarians, administer IVs of fluid and antibiotics to help nurse them back to a healthy state so they may be released. Interns and volunteers assist with everything from feedings and wound care, to cleaning ICU’s (a very important job in the clinic), swim time for the pups, even transporting them to the Mystic Aquarium Aquatic Animal Study Center if they need radiographs done by the veterinarians.
On deck the day I was there in the clinicwas Kyrsten Holle, an intern who just graduated from Colorado State University with a major in zoology. “I love it here. I get more experience here than anywhere I volunteered before,” says Kyrsten. “They immerse you in everything and really want you to get the experience you desire.” She will be here for 12 weeks and then will go to the Marine Mammal Center in California to get more experience with rescue and rehab…then maybe on to graduate school.
The animal rescue program has a dedicated and passionate team of 250 first responders, five interns, two paid staff members, and 28 volunteers working in the clinic. First responders are on call and respond to emergencies when seals or other marine mammals are spotted on the beach. As Skip puts it, “there is no rest for the weary.” And with a 1,000 miles of coastline to cover the team is busy all year round. To date the team has responded to over 1,200 stranded sightings,with most of the pup rescues coming in between early spring and summer.There is a hotline that people can call when they notice an animal on the beach that might be in distress. “The team is about stewardship, what we do, and why,” says Skip. “These are protected animals, and when they are found people should contact us and let those with authority and experience take care of them.”
Release day is a special day for the lucky pup seal(s) who gets the seal of medical approval from the veterinarians. Forty percent of them do not survive due to their health when they come into the clinic; but for the lucky few, the day they get to go back out to sea is a memorable one not only for the seal pups, but for the rescue team who has worked so hard to save a life. If the weather cooperates, release day is on Thursday following physicals on Wednesdays. The volunteers and staff get the seal ready in a carrying kennel to make the journey to Blue Shutters Beach in Charlestown, Rhode Island. Volunteers mark off a semi circle area placing the seal in the center, thereby giving it enough room to leave the kennel with a wide view of the ocean. A member of the animal rescue team addresses the crowd telling them where the seal came from and her or his health up to that day. Then a guest of honor, either a volunteer who rescued the animal, or a member of the team who was involved in its care, opens the kennel door; and the seal eagerly makes its way to the salty water, healthy and able to carry on the species for the future. “The hours are long, and the work is hard, but it’s all worth it when that little seal hits the sand,” says Skip.
In the entire time Skip has been talking to me life in the animal rescue clinic has unfolded into a whirlwind of activity. Interns cleaning ICU’s, feeding pups their formula, Skip making sure the gray seal has more fish to dine on later that night, and volunteers whose shifts should have ended a while ago are still hanging in there to finish up the day’s work, making sure the pups are safe and taken care of for the night.
“We are a part of the aquarium family and all part of the same mission.”
If you notice signs of a marine mammal in distress, do not get close to the animal. Call the Mystic Animal Rescue Hotline at 860-572-5955 x 107, and they will send out a first responder to assess the stranded marine mammal.
If you would like to donate to the Animal Rescue Program or become a volunteer, please visit http://www.mysticaquarium.org/animals-and-exhibits/animal-rescue-program or call: 860-572-5955.