Maintaining the wildness of the animals we treat is an essential part of The Marine Mammal Center's mission.
In order to survive in the wild, animals undergoing rehabilitation must not imprint on their human caretakers or associate us with food and nurturing. The animals the Center cares for are wild animals not accustomed to human interaction, so all of our husbandry procedures seek to limit human interaction and reduce stress, ensuring that the animals remain as wild as possible.
Techniques include limiting visual and physical contact with our patients and trying to keep noise levels low. Staff and volunteers limit talking around the animals. Visitors are asked to remain quiet while in the hospital zone. Screening on pens is used to reduce the visual impact of people around the animals. Herding boards are used to maneuver animals safely and effectively. Treatment regimes carefully consider limiting human contact and stress by grouping medications with regular feeds as much as possible, and using the fewest number of people to safely handle the animals. Certain areas of the Center that house our most critical patients or those animals most susceptible to imprinting, are off-limits to the public, and to non-animal care staff.
The measures we undertake to ensure the wildness of the animals also help to reduce the stress they are under while at our hospital. Stress is a major factor impacting marine mammal health. When an animal is stressed for an extended period of time, it can cause the animal's immune system to stop working properly, making the animal more susceptible to disease.
Animals such as Pacific harbor seal pups are particularly vulnerable to stress. These animals suffer from a disease associated with a herpes virus that may be exacerbated by stress. The Geoffrey C. Hughes Harbor Seal Hospital was specifically designed to reduce stress in harbor seals. By reducing the necessity of handling the animals, ensuring proper pool filtration, incorporating sunken pools, building more pools to ensure fewer animals per pen, and providing adequate nutrition, we can reduce the stress these animals are under while in our hospital and increase the chances of their survival. Since the hospital's opening in 1999, the harbor seal survival rate has dramatically increased from 15% in 1998 to 56% in 1999, and 73% in 2000.