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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/

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mike Makes it Home! "Hey Mikey ~ He Likes It!"

Photo-Article: Dina N. Warren, Communications & Harbor Seal Crew volunteer.

Ready for release after lots of practice swimming, diving and retrieving fish in his deep water pool, Mike is sporting the latest in Harbor seal hat wear. In fact, Mike's temporary hat tag will help scientists track his travel and success in the wild, and will fall off once he experiences his first, yearly molt.

Mike practices floating and gliding along the water's surface.

Mike spots something interesting and assumes a vertical water position. Known as "bottling," this behavior is common to Harbor seals and other marine mammals.

Life is good! Mike enjoys a quiet doze while "bottling" just a few days before his release... shhh!

Mike was one of the very first pups of the 2011 Harbor season. He was rescued on March 22nd, at Bolinas' Brighton Beach, and safely admitted to the Center's special Harbor Seal Hospital facility. Mike was suffering from severe maternal separation -- severe, because Mike couldn't have been more than just a few days old. "At only 7.6 kilograms, Mike still had a three-inch umbilicus and was slightly jaundiced," described Deb Wickham, the Center's veterinary science operations manager. "Mike was a premature newborn, had no teeth, and was still covered in a long, whitish coat of hair, his lanugo coat, typical of premature pups. This is usually lost before birth and is less common in full-term pups," added Wickham.

After Mike received his "admit exam," vet staff started him on a newborn pup protocol. He was first stabilized with a tub-fed combination of electrolytes and fluids to rehydrate him. Mike also received a regime of vitamin B-complex called, pinnivite, to boost his immune system, along with a series of antibiotics to help guard against a potential fatal umbilicus infection. Then, Mike received frequent, small tube-feedings of Harbor seal baby formula - much like human formula. Since Mike did not experience the benefits of being raised by his mother, his weaning process was much longer, than he would have experienced in the wild. During the wild-weaning period of six to eight weeks, Mike would have also received valuable antibodies from his mother's milk, along with crucial learning experiences in swimming, diving, finding and catching food. At the Center, under artificial conditions, it took Mike about three months to reach independence, which is typical for other Harbor seal patients his age.

In the early stages of Mike's recovery and growth, he was extremely lethargic, and described by vet staff as, sweet and low. "He was a "slow developer" and almost died a couple of times, with periodic bouts of inactive breathing common to fragile newborns," explained Wickham. "It was a challenge for vet staff and Harbor Crew volunteers to assess and differentiate Mike's weak and irregular breathing, and his overall unresponsiveness," described Wickham. Since Mike also presented with a faint and irregular heartbeat, vet staff decided to include a bronchial respiratory stimulant, doxopram, in his tube feedings. This helped his small, under-developed lungs do a better job of keeping him alive! "Any time we see pups this tiny and compromised, we have to provide this kind of supportive care," added Wickham.

It was touch and go, that first month of Mike's life at the Center, but he grew and gained strength steadily. About a month after his rescue, Mike was finally ready to learn how to feed on whole fish, inside his small and shallow water enclosure, designed specifically for pups his age. Shortly thereafter, Mike graduated to one of the Center's larger, deeper pools, designed for longer, deeper swimming and diving opportunities. These pools encourage pinniped patients of all ages and types, to build stamina, strength and agility, while independently retrieving and eating fish. Often there will be as many as five or six seals in one of these larger pools, and just as in the wild, Mike learned to "compete" for food, while still under veterinary care.

Finally, on June 22nd, almost three months to the day of his rescue, Mike was ready to return to his ocean home! He was joined by three of his pen-mates; Dog Biscuit, Noyobabe and Serenity, also young pups treated for maternal separation. All were successfully released at Scotty Creek Beach, in Sonoma County. Mike's story of rescue, rehabilitation and release, is a celebration of the challenging work staff and volunteers perform each and every day at The Marine Mammal Center. We all wish the very best for Mike... Good luck, little guy!

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Paddle the Brave Pup ~ A Bittersweet Story That Deserves to be Told

Once stabilized and after he regained his strength, Paddle began to swim energetically within his Harbor Hospital water enclosure.

Paddle had just begun "fish school" and was learning how to accept small, whole fish that were hand-fed to him, on his pen-floor.

It took a village... Volunteer Harbor Crew supervisor, Stan Jensen, lended a hand to fellow volunteers, Jeop van Belkom, newly arrived from the Netherlands; and Kimberly Swan, a two year veteran, originally from New Zealand.

Article & Photos: Dina N. Warren, Communications and Harbor Crew volunteer.
The story of Paddle, the Harbor Seal Pup, was one of the most amazing and dramatic patient stories the Center has ever shared... However, this bittersweet saga of rescue and rehabilitation also comes with a heartbreaking end -- nevertheless, Paddle's story has to be told...

Paddle's rescue took place over the course of three days, with a carefully synchronized team of staff and volunteers working tirelessly, in a heroic effort to save this tiny, late season pinniped. The story began on May 31st, with local Standing volunteer and naturalist, Sarah Grimes, who was leading one of her tour-groups up the Big River Estuary, near Fort Bragg.

While describing the local sights, Sarah and her fellow Fort Brag Operations volunteer, Ben Schleifer, also with the Department of Fish and Game, spotted the tiny pinniped -- lethargic, emaciated and shaking. "He was vocal, but distressed and all alone on the riverbank. I was very concerned because it was quite late in the Northern California Harbor pupping season, and he was exceptionally small to be without his mother," explained Grimes. The next day, June 1st, Sarah decided to paddle up river again, to further assess the pup's condition -- but he was nowhere in sight.

Three days later, on June 2nd, the Center's Stranding Department in Sausalito, received a concerned citizen's call describing the very same pup! The Stranding Department quickly contacted Sarah and gave her permission to attempt rescue. Generously encouraged by her tour-operator to use their pontoon boat, Sarah paddled twice as far, four miles up the south side of Big River. "I was losing all hope when I came upon the most incredible sight!" explained Grimes. "There was "Paddle" still alone and very distressed -- but it looked like he was up in a tree!?" exclaimed Grimes. In fact, Paddle had climbed up a fallen tree branch,and was hanging on for dear life, dangling about 3 feet over the water!

Sarah hopped out of her outrigger and rescued the pup, wrapping him in a towel and safely securing him in the boat's front cargo hold. She furiously paddled back down to the river's mouth, placed the pup in a waiting transport carrier, and immediately drove 1.5 hours to Cloverdale. There, Paddle was transferred to waiting Stranding volunteers, Phil and Jean Warren. (Phil's also serves as a Board member.) After another hour's drive south, Paddle was transferred again, to Erin Brodie, one of the Center's Stranding coordinators, and her husband, Dan. Together, they drove Paddle from Novato to the Center's Harbor Seal Hospital, in Sausalito. That night, guided by the Center's veterinary team, Erin worked tirelessly to save the critical pup!

"Paddle was in pretty poor condition, suffering from severe dehydration, malnutrition and maternal separation. He went into hypoglycemic shock and was experiencing multiple seizures," explained Dr. Rebecca Greene, one of the Center's associate veterinarians. At barely 28 inches long and only 12.2 pounds, Paddle was considerably younger than most of the other Harbor seal patients. Together, Dr, Greene and Donna Why, a volunteer Harbor Crew supervisor, worked to save and stabilize Paddle, using a dextrose fluid IV and an anti-seizure medication, diazepam. Paddle's admit-exam also revealed congested upper airways and a slight heart murmur, so the Vet team ordered radiographs and echo cardiograms. Paddle was then prescribed antibiotics, doxycycline and clavamox, to rule out any pneumonia, and the veterinary team continued to monitor Paddle's heart murmur, which sometimes can resolve itself, as pups grow and develop.

Paddle was responding well to a series of tube-feedings, starting with baby formula and later with blended fish milkshakes consisting of salmon oil, herring and water. "He was very eager and energetic, once he was feeling better," explained Stan Jensen, another volunteer Harbor Crew supervisor. "We were all hoping and working for the best recovery and outcome." said Stan Jensen.

Then, something very disappointing happened with Paddle's story of survival. Little Paddle died over night, on July 1st, a month into his rehabilitation. "Unfortunately, Paddle succumbed to the extent of malnutrition and related challenges he'd faced," explained Dr. Jeff Boehm, the Center's executive director. Once Paddle had been stabilized, he began to respond to his treatment plan, and Harbor Crew volunteers and vet staff had become guardedly optimistic. "Though it's not good news... we stand to learn from Paddle's passing... in our post-mortem analysis, (which) we'll be sure to share," added Dr. Boehm.

It's always a risk to share and sometimes even to celebrate, our patients' amazing survival stories. But, as Dr. Boehm reminded us, "It is important to tell the complete story, which reflects the complexity and unpredictability of the Center's work." It is true, that dear little Paddle's passing will yield more scientific knowledge for our current and future pinniped patients...

We are all greatly saddened by his passing. But, we were privileged to have cared for this special pinniped patient, and hoped and worked for his recovery and release back into the wild. We're sorry he didn't make it -- our brave little Paddle!

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