Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center: Education, Rehabilitation, and Release

The Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center takes the animals' recovery in stages before releasing them back into the wild.

LAGUNA BEACH一 The 133 highway winds through a canyon walled with hills covered in scrubbed bushes, moving south off to the left a graveled parking lot sits in front of a large red-wood building with a blue sign welcoming visitors to the Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center.

Entering the center from the wooden gate visitors walk by a colorful depiction of a sea lion before entering into the educational center.

The center boasts a gift shop, a small garden, and a series of informational signs including a full display discussing the dangers of ocean pollution and the effect it has on the animals calling the center a temporary home.

Just beyond the yard behind a chain-link fence, several Northern elephant seals, fondly called ‘ellies’ by their caretakers, a few sea lions, and a couple of harbor seal pups are spending the next two to four months or longer recovering from the injuries that brought them into the center.

When a boater makes a call about entangled or injured animals, they might end up here, where the center hosts an enclosed animal hospital with a small clinic and a series of pens to carry out treatment and start the slow process of reintegrating the animals back into the wild. The center was established by three volunteers in 1971 and was the first marine mammal rehabilitation facility in California. It is now celebrating 50 years of rescues, rehabilitation, and ocean stewardship education.

The center receives almost daily calls from lifeguards, animal control, or members of the public who have noticed a stranded or injured marine mammal up and down Orange County’s coastline.

“We can’t monitor all this area so we rely heavily on the support of the public to bring those animals in,” said Krysta Higuchi, the events and public relations manager for the center. “We always ask for a photo and that’s just because we need to know what kind of equipment to bring, how many people, obviously we are going to send a lot more people if it’s an adult male versus a harbor seal pup, different equipment is also used. So, we will send one of these rescue trucks out and bring the animal back.”

The animals are brought back to the center and enter into the ICU, the first stage of rehabilitation. They go through a full exam, where the team takes their weight, temperature, checks the sex of the animal, and then assesses their injuries to determine the next set of treatment.

Some of the injuries are obvious, like a shark bite or an entanglement, but some animals have more nuanced injuries, like Haggis, a malnourished sea lion that was brought in with a fish hook stuck in her esophagus.

Haggis will spend the first part of her recovery in the ICU while the team assesses how to remove the fish hook and what the next stage of treatment is. “Patients go here when they first come in because it has heated floors and they are kind of away from all the craziness of the rest of the animal hospital, and they are right next to our clinic,” said Higuchi. “…We are a very small facility. We are small but mighty.”

The ICU is towards the entrance of the hospital and is the beginning of the journey for many of these animals coming in, a lot of the animals that come in are malnourished and part of the recovery process is to make sure that they are eating which sometimes requires a force-feed, which is a fish smoothie with things like Pedialyte to ensure recovery; this is the most hands-on the team is with the animal.

“This is all the hands-on interaction we want to have with these animals. We do have to restrain them and our trained animal care volunteers will put the tube down the animal’s throat and administer food that way,” said Higuchi. “These animals are so weak we have to feed them that way. That’s the first stage of rehab.”

Further down the hallway are the pens for the intermediate stage of rehabilitation, these animals are starting to do single or group feedings, caretakers will use a board to separate themselves from the animal to ensure a more hands-off approach.

“They are separating them so they can feed them in groups,” said Higuchi. “You can see that they are using this board to separate them. It’s not only for protection but it’s also for separation. These are wild animals. We don’t want to pick them up and hug them and then put them in the next pen.”

Animals in these pens are still undergoing treatment but are on the road to recovery and have the ability to hunt for themselves.

A pair of ‘ellies’ that are in the intermediate stage of recovery hop their way into the intermediate pool where they will attempt a competitive feed.

This means that caretakers will separate themselves from the seals using the board and toss the fish into the water for the animal to relearn to dive and hunt for fish, skills they will need to be released back into the wild.

The intermediate stage is in the small pools and goes from individual feedings to group feedings, and eventually competitive feedings which put the animals on the way to graduation.

Outside in the larger pools, three sea lions are gliding through the pools when they see the approach of their caretakers with a board and a bucket of fish, the splashing becomes more pronounced as the gate is opened.

Caretakers place the board and start to toss the fish into the pool and the sea lions jump into action, diving and catching the fish as they hit the water. Chowder, Sisu, and Snuggles are in the final stage of their recovery.

“This is what’s called a competitive feed,” said Higuchi. “So these animals are out here in these pools these are our healthiest patients they are the closest to being released, these are California sea lions there are three of them in here a competitive feed they are past the tube feedings when they come in they are past the individual feedings they are past the small side pools and now they are in the larger pools and they eat competitively that’s a criteria for release we want to make sure they are hunting they foraging diving, we want to know if they can do it here they can do it out there.”

To volunteer, learn more about education opportunities, or donate to the Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center see https://www.pacificmmc.org/.

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