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The Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit veterinary hospital, research, and educational center dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of ill and injured marine mammals and the study of their health. Since 1975, the Center has rescued and treated more than 16,500 marine mammals and has accumulated a body of knowledge about marine mammal and ocean health. Through public education about marine mammals, the Center hopes to foster ocean stewardship and conservation. For more information, visit http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/

Friday, July 25, 2008

It Takes a Village to Raise a Steller!

Arctic suckles formula from a bottle through the fencing (photo taken with a zoom lens through a small hole in the tarp).

On June 30, The Marine Mammal Center rescued a days-old Steller sea lion that was separated from its mother on Año Nuevo Island. The tiny pup would not have survived on its own, so it was brought back to the Center's hospital to begin a long process of caring for it until it is self-sufficient and old enough to be released to the wild. The pup has been nicknamed "Arctic" and is a very special patient for several reasons.

The Steller sea lion population has dropped by 80% in the last 30 years. In 1997, the western stock in Alaska was listed as endangered and the eastern stock of the Continental United States and Canada was listed as threatened. Because Arctic is a female and therefore could grow to reproduce and add to the population, her successful rehabilitation is an important goal. Her caretakers therefore want to do everything they can to help the fragile pup grow strong and survive in the wild.

Arctic's caretakers have instituted some very strict rules for her care that will hopefully minimize her habituation to humans. We want her to remain as wild as possible and to have a natural flight response when approached by humans after her release, so contact with people is kept to a bare minimum for Arctic. While this is already a policy with all the animals at The Marine Mammal Center, it's doubly important for Arctic. As a very young pup, she has had minimal exposure to other sea lions and animals in the wild. She has not had the learning experiences to teach her to be afraid of humans and predators, so the risk that she won't learn a normal flight response is higher than with older sea lions that have already learned to avoid potential dangers in the wild, including humans.

To combat this risk, Arctic is being kept in a pen in a secured area of the facility. She is sharing her pen with several other sea lions to socialize her, and there are tarps blocking her view to the outside. Only a very restricted number of people are allowed near the pen, and only when she needs to be medically checked or fed. These necessary activities happen from behind a board or through the fence so that she does not identify her human caretakers. A closed-circuit video camera mounted on the pen can allow volunteers and veterinary staff to monitor her remotely in the fish kitchen. Hopefully, these steps will successfully prevent her from becoming too habituated to human contact and she will be as wild as possible when she is released.

Arctic has been suckling a very rich milk formula voraciously from a bottle and has started gaining weight. She's still very fragile, but her caretakers are hopeful that she will continue to progress and will eventually be successfully introduced to the wild. Everybody from our animal care volunteers to staff to visitors has been incredibly supportive and careful about helping to preserve this very important protective environment as Arctic is rehabilitated. It takes a collective effort, and people's cooperation has been instrumental as we move forward in this effort to save a specimen of a threatened species.

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