From Rescuing to Rehabilitating and Releasing Marine Animals on the California Coast
Mike Remski worked on Friends of Animals’ Marine Animal Rescue team in Los Angeles County for two years rescuing and transporting sea lions, seals and sea birds to rehabilitation centers for treatment and release back into the ocean.
In late April of 2013, Mike left FoA to work as the marine mammal rehabilitation manager at the California Wildlife Center’s newly created rehabilitation site for seals, located in Calabasas near Malibu. This outdoor shelter — built in just three weeks — was created as a temporary shelter to rehabilitate northern elephant seals. This move helped reduce strain at San Pedro’s Marine Mammal Care Center after the care center was flooded by the influx of hundreds of starving sea lion pups who had come ashore since January.
Friends of Animals’ staff visited the Marine Mammal Care Center last December and observed the rehabilitation. Although the California Wildlife Center’s new shelter was set up as a temporary emergency response measure, the plan is to keep it running to better serve the community whether or not there’s a crisis.
When did you start working with marine animals, and what drew you to this work?
I’ve been working with marine mammals since spring of 2005. After being laid off from a corporate job, I decided to get more involved with my lifelong love of the ocean, so I started to volunteer at the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur, in San Pedro. Volunteering led to a job as vet assistant, vet tech, and finally assistant operations manager. I learned every aspect of marine mammal rehab, under the guidance of knowledgeable and passionate staff. The thousands of animals that came through the center those years taught me a deeper respect for animals, and the people who assist them. I left MMCC in 2011 to join Friends of Animals’ marine animal rescue project in CA.
What’s your role at the California Wildlife Center’s rehabilitation facility for marine animals, and did rescuing sea lions and seals help prepare you to assist them at the center?
I’m the marine mammal rehabilitation manager, responsible for the daily needs of marine mammals. We have staff dedicated to rescue work, and my focus is rehabilitation. The skills I acquired rescuing sea lions have given me a deeper understanding of what the animals have been through. I have a greater appreciation for what the animals have endured, and for the people who have rescued them.
My job is to keep animals alive long enough for them to regain their strength, and to start healing on their own. Right now we strictly have northern elephant seals at this site, which was created as an emergency response to the “unusual mortality event” that caused record numbers of sea lions to strand, overwhelming existing treatment centers. We freed up room at existing centers, by taking some of their elephant seals, as well as any newly stranded elephant seals in LA County. We hope to rehabilitate California sea lions before the end of the 2013.
Note: The California Wildlife Center rescues sea lions in Malibu and transports them to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro.
Please describe what National Marine Fisheries called an “unusual mortality event” early in 2013? How did you deal with the crisis at the shelter?
A huge influx of starving 6-month-old sea lion pups, all born last June, were stranded on Southern California beaches. Every winter, in January and February you see a slight increase in stranded sea lion pups. They leave their mothers around 6-12 months of age, and by January some are stranded, an occurrence called “failure to thrive.” These are the pups that didn’t do well without mom. Normally we see about 20-40 each winter that have a failure to thrive in all of LA County. This year at the same time sea lion pups were going out on their own, a lot of small fish — anchovies and sardines -- disappeared in the area. That’s the diet for these animals, right when they need it most because they are eating on their own for the first time, a very crucial time for pups. These are new hunters who don’t know to swim out farther to find other fish, and can’t swallow anything larger; they need anchovies and sardines to survive. Also, last June twice as many pups were born as in previous years. So from January into April, hundreds of sea lion pups were washing up — 400 or so stranded and starving. Once an animal stops eating, other issues arise. They are prone to infection, they get overwhelmed with parasites, and eat inappropriate or dangerous fish out of desperation.
The California Wildlife Center created the new emergency shelter where I now work because of this UME. Because of all the sick sea lions arriving at LA County’s only rehabilitation shelter -- Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro -- they were over capacity with a staggering number of pups.
The creation of a new shelter allowed CWC to take Northern elephants seals from San Pedro from the center in Laguna , Pacific Marine Mammal Center, located in Orange Country.
We treated eight elephant seals so far, three from each center and two straight from the beaches. These are 150-pound animals and we had only three weeks to put the entire thing together because of the immediate need. We encountered situations I’m not used to dealing with in a marine mammal center, such as being located in the hills, with no sewer system or in ground pools, so we had to be creative to make things work. Ultimately, we freed up space at other centers and going forward we will be even more prepared to help the community.
When a seal arrives for treatment, what happens next?
Normally their biggest problem is dehydration. These seals don’t drink water, so if they are not eating fish they are not adequately hydrated. The first step is to hydrate them — either orally or subcutaneously (like an IV but under the skin instead of in a vein). Once they’re hydrated and better able to accept nutrition, we introduce a formula that is fed into their stomach through a feeding tube. Some of these very young pups have never eaten fish before. They are so young and have just left their mothers a few months ago and may have only nursed or had a couple of fish in the ocean. The formula contains ground up fish, sardines or herring, mixed with water and vitamins. We are also look for any additional problems. Blood work is done and infections and parasites are handled with medication. The veterinarian repairs injuries. After they’ve had formula for a while we introduce fish. They are kept in a “dry” enclosure with a small kiddie pool, which allows access to the animal for treatments, and they can still get water to cool off. The final step is for them to learn to eat fish under water. Once they can do that they are on their way out the door. The time frame is usually three months before they are healthy enough for release. We shoot for a body weight of 150 pounds before releasing them. When they come in they are about half that weight — just 75 pounds. The process for rehabilitating an animal is quicker if they’ve eaten fish in the ocean.
When marine animals are ready to be returned to the ocean, what steps are taken, and where are the locations?
A short video was filmed in June of the California Wildlife Center’s first, successful ocean release of four rehabilitated elephant seal pups at Paradise Cove in Malibu. After two successful months of rehabilitation efforts, we transported them from the center in big dog kennels that we opened on the beach. They all went in the water eventually; although some took a little longer than others. A crowd had gathered on the beach for this event because it was making history for the center as our first release, and reporters attended. We watched over the animals until they went into the water to ensure that curious beachgoers wouldn’t interfere. The ones just released were 6-months-old, and they’re still considered pups up.
What’s the success rate of animals who are cared for at the treatment center?
Typically about 75%. It varies slightly from year-to-year.
We’ve seen groups of elephant seals and sea lions grouped at the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur play in pools. How are compatible groups formed?
Most adult males are separated from other animals since they’re territorial and aggressive, and far fewer are stranded. Pups and females can be grouped together, depending on how well they eat. Animals that are fed with a tube are usually grouped together. Animals who are “free feeding” are grouped together and new eaters they are usually put together. Pups do like to play and wrestle together. Female adults are more interested in resting or eating, not playing.
Do on-site veterinarians and technicians have to be present for unexpected events?
Yes, our veterinarian is always on call, if not physically at the center. If needed at any time he can be reached. We also have many volunteers. Someone is always there from early morning to late evening and the animals are almost always being observed or monitored. If their behavior or appearance changes, there’s usually a medical reason; the quicker we observe it, the easier it is to fix.
What skill sets or psychological make-up allows someone to be good at the efforts you perform?
This work is very physically and mentally demanding. You need to be in good physical shape to handle large, dangerous, heavy animals. Mentally you need to be able to be positive and move quickly. These animals are handled a lot in the beginning – to do a tube feeding or other medical procedures and they don’t particularly like being handled — so you have to have a level of confidence around the animals. Fear has no place in the animal’s enclosure because they’ll pick up on that and make anything you need to do much harder. You have to focus on successes, and not focus too much on ones who don’t make it. There will be animals you can save, and some you can’t.
What’s your view of how to minimize the hazards ocean animals face?
There are human-caused changes occurring in the ocean. The ocean is being depleted of its fish. Commercial fishing, as well as climate change could be contributing factors.
When ocean mammals come out of the ocean starving, dying on the beaches, it’s hard to ignore.
I recommend that people watch what they eat because fish play an important role in the ocean. Our behavior affects the oceans, which ultimately affects us. Personally, I don’t eat fish.
What you can do
To watch the video of the ocean release of the four elephant seal pups in the interview and to support their work, go to the California Wildlife Center’s website at: www.cawildlife.org
California Wildlife Center
P.O. Box 2022
Malibu, CA 90265
Hotline Phone: 310-456-WILD (9453)
Friends of Animals funded a marine animal rescue program in Los Angeles County for six years, helping to save thousands of marine animals and sea birds. The next phase of our marine animal protection program shifts support to rehabilitation and release efforts for injured and stranded marine animals to ensure rescued animals have the best chance of survival.