Seal Rehab Center a Victim of Its Success
The seals look up with sad eyes, some too tired or sick to lift their heads. Some have been abandoned by their mothers, others are malnourished. A few have been injured by sharks looking for a snack.
While the sick animals await treatment, workers and volunteers blend fish frappes for the young pups. With five feedings a day, they consume 500 pounds of fish daily.
The Marine Animal Lifeline is the largest of a handful of organizations that rescue and rehabilitate stranded seals in New England, covering an area from the New Hampshire border to Rockland. Last year, it had 805 reports of stranded, injured or dead seals but took in no more than 47 seals at a time.
In July, that number swelled to 60 and a call went out for more volunteers.
“We’re pretty much the county hospital. We take anything and everything, and we’re filled to capacity,” founder Greg Jakush said over the sound of barking seals as workers fed them meals of fish.
Jakush isn’t complaining. If anything, the organization he created a decade ago has become a victim of its own success.
More people call the Marine Animal Lifeline when seal pups are abandoned, and the organization is doing a better job of saving those rescued pups. The combination has led to a population explosion of harbor seals at the facility.
Harbor seals, which have flourished on the Maine coast, represent the bulk of summer patients. The facility also takes in hooded, harp, gray and ringed seals.
On a recent day, workers were evaluating the latest arrivals, a pair of young harbor seals, one of which had a broken flipper. The injured animal was in the treatment room while the other was quarantined with other sick and emaciated seals.
After quarantine, the seals spend time in the water mammal equivalent of an intensive care unit, each resting in its own tub. There, they can receive intravenous fluids and medicine, and their progress is recorded on medical charts.
A number is placed on each seal’s head to help workers keep track. On this morning, a staff member reports that seal No. 338 has thrown up blood. Jakush orders IV fluids along with antibiotics and steroids but the seal doesn’t respond; she is euthanized later that afternoon.
With so many seals, the staff of five and another 50 volunteers see a never-ending cycle of feeding and cleaning -- hosing down the concrete floors and the pens.
Just outside, motorists zooming by on a two-lane highway have no idea of the drama playing out in the nondescript two-story building and Quonset huts that make up the Marine Animal Lifeline compound. The offices have no markings because there are no shows or public tours. The idea is to minimize seals’ exposure to humans.
Jakush, a Chicagoan who went to Florida for college and ended up becoming a dolphin trainer, came to Maine because he wanted to give sick seals a second chance. At the time, there was no seal rehabilitation in Maine.
Today, Allied Whale, which is operated by the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, handles Down East rescues and sends seals to Westbrook for rehabilitation. The University of New England in Biddeford also has a small seal rehabilitation program.
To the south, the Mystic Aquarium handles rescue and rehabilitation in Connecticut and Rhode Island. In Massachusetts, the Cape Cod Stranding Network and New England Aquarium in Boston handle rescues. Many of those seals end up at Westbrook.
A survey published by University of Maine professor James Gilbert in the July edition of the quarterly journal Marine Mammal Science estimates a healthy population of 99,340 harbor seals in 2001.
Typically, a quarter of seal pups die in their first three weeks, and only half of them make it to a year old. Sometimes they get separated from their mothers. It also could be that the mother has simply gone to forage for food.
If a pup is truly abandoned, it is taken to Westbrook where it’s placed in quarantine for three or four days.
After that, the rehabilitation process begins as the seals are nursed back to health and fattened on pureed fish.
Eventually, the young seals learn how to eat by gnawing on fish before chasing and learning to hunt live fish in a 5,000-gallon tank.
They have a healthy layer of fat by the time they’re moved to an even larger tank and then released into the wild.