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Adapting Animal Care in the Middle of a Crisis

With four decades of expertise, The Marine Mammal Center’s animal care practices have come a long way. But even as we face a California sea lion crisis, we continue to adapt our treatment based on scientific findings to give our patients the best chance at survival.

March 26, 2015

Early days at The Marine Mammal Center.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Over the last 40 years, The Marine Mammal Center has grown from a few bathtubs and a big idea into a world-class rehabilitation hospital, research and educational center.

But it’s more than just our physical structure that’s changed. In that four decades, marine mammal science and animal care practices have evolved as well. Even today, we are constantly reviewing these protocols and making changes in real time to improve care.

With an unprecedented number of starving young sea lions stranding on our shores this year, providing efficient and effective treatment is more important than ever.

“Making smart decisions about the way we care for our patients is absolutely vital during a crisis,” says Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of Veterinary Science at The Marine Mammal Center. “Even small adjustments can make a big difference, and it’s our commitment to learn from every single patient that has helped us give so many animals a second chance at life.”

Learning from Every Animal
During this 2015 California sea lion crisis, we’ve rescued hundreds of sea lion pups in extremely emaciated condition—smaller than any pups we’ve seen before. Some of these animals are so sick by the time they reach our hospital that they aren’t able to survive.

Emaciated pups fill the pens at the Center.
© The Marine Mammal Center

But every single animal that dies gets a full necropsy, like a human autopsy, in which our researchers look for a cause of death—as well as any indication of how to give future patients a better chance. What our researchers learned from some of these small pups has led to changes in how we are feeding emaciated animals.

Many of these sea lions showed signs of liver failure, a common side effect of malnutrition, which can manifest as fatty deposits in the liver. While we can’t undo the damage that’s happened before a sea lion strands, our veterinary experts decided to eliminate any additional fatty content in the initial meals we give them at our hospital.

The sea lion formula recipe that has been developed over time here at the Center is comprised of ground-up fish, salmon oil and water. This “fish smoothie” is delivered via tube-feeding to animals too young or weak to catch fish on their own. But going forward, any severely emaciated patients will first receive a different mixture with no added salmon oil.

Our researchers also reported that they were seeing severe stomach ulcers in the emaciated animals they were examining during necropsies. Ulcers are not uncommon in animals suffering from malnutrition, as the stomach continues to produce acid even if there is no food to break down.

To help prevent this painful and sometimes life-threatening condition, our veterinary team put a new drug protocol into place. Now every incoming sea lion pup receives a drug called omeprazole—known in brand-name form to humans as Prilosec—which decreases the amount of acid produced by the stomach.

From Seabirds to Sea Lions
When starving animals arrive at our facilities, they are often given electrolytes for their first few feedings to help hydrate them and prepare their bodies for more solid food. Just as human patients are advised to ease back slowly into solid food after a bad stomach flu or fasting period, this transition is important to ensure that the animals are able to properly digest their food.

During this busy season, our animal husbandry experts are adding one more transition step between electrolytes and fish smoothie meals for severely emaciated sea lions. Inspired by the techniques employed at other rehabilitation facilities, our teams are using a product called Emeraid that has been successfully used to stabilize sick seabirds.

Emeraid is a powder that contains amino acids, protein, vitamins and minerals. The powder is mixed with water, rehydrating the animal while delivering life-saving nutrients—almost like Gatorade or Ensure for sick sea lions.

Preparing the feedings for each animal.
© The Marine Mammal Center

With these new protocols, our most severely emaciated sea lions have a longer progression toward fish—first electrolytes, then Emeraid, followed by fish smoothies without salmon oil and finally, whole fish. This means patients may stay in our care longer to gain a healthy amount of weight, but our experts are hopeful that this transition period will give these sea lion pups the best chance at survival.

Timing is Everything
The animal husbandry experts at the Center who are adapting our animal care to this current crisis are looking at more than just food and medications. They’ve been working hard to improve efficiency and effectiveness by grouping sea lions in similar stages of recovery together—pups still needing tube-feedings are separated from those who have progressed to eating whole fish.

The feeding schedule has also been altered to adjust to the record number of patients on-site. Instead of feeding the sea lion pups four times a day—at 8 a.m., noon, 4 p.m. and 10 p.m.—they are now being fed a bit more three times a day—at 8 a.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

This adjusted feeding schedule reduces the number of times animal care teams must interact with these vulnerable young animals, improving the pups’ chances of staying wild. It also allows the sea lions more time to digest their food before the next feeding, which helps them retain the nutrition they need.

A Steadfast Commitment to Success
With nearly 200 California sea lions in our care right now, our animal care staff and volunteers are working harder than ever to give every single animal the best chance of survival during this crisis.

Even as formula recipes, feeding schedules and medications are adapted, one thing that hasn’t changed in our 40-year history is our dedication to helping these animals when they need it most.

Very young sea lion pups at The Marine Mammal Center.
© Pat Wilson, The Marine Mammal Center

You Can Make a Difference
Help provide the critical care that these young California sea lions need to be successfully returned to their ocean home. Your support goes a long way to help all of our pinniped patients get a second chance at life. And for the next two weeks, your donation will be matched dollar for dollar by the Waitt Foundation up to $5,000.

Stay in touch! Learn more about our pinniped patients and follow their fascinating stories.

Sign up for updates from The Marine Mammal Center.



Learn about: California sea lions

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