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Ernesto, the Harbor Seal with a Broken Wing

A lucky harbor seal pup gets a second chance at life after a bone infection in his flipper requires intensive surgery and a partial amputation.

December 14, 2015

By the time harbor seal pup Ernesto was spotted alone on a public beach along Monterey Bay, The Marine Mammal Center had already rescued more than 80 harbor seal pups during a record-breaking busy season. Like most of those pups, Ernesto was underweight for his age, suffering from malnutrition and too young to be apart from his mother.

But when our rescue experts approached him, they realized that although Ernesto was feisty, just as a wild harbor seal should be, he wasn’t using his right front flipper and it appeared to be swollen.

During his admit exam, Ernesto was holding up his limb and responded aggressively when he was touched. Our veterinarians took a closer look and determined that his flipper had an abscess, a sign of a bad infection.

An initial X-ray indicated that Ernesto might be suffering from osteomyelitis, an infection in the bone that could have been caused by a bite or other puncture wound that allowed bacteria to penetrate the flipper.

The Center’s animal husbandry experts began rotating hot and cold compresses on Ernesto’s flipper. Just as in humans, the warmth helps increase blood flow and promote healing while the cooler temperature helps reduce swelling.

After a few days, the swelling had not improved and Ernesto still seemed to be in pain. The veterinary team used an ultrasound machine to take a closer look at the fluid between the skin and bones. In order to relieve the swelling, they inserted a surgical drain, which they hoped would allow Ernesto’s body to naturally flush out bacteria and other toxins to rid itself of the infection.

Unfortunately, Ernesto was not able to fight off the infection on his own. After several weeks of specialized care, he was still refusing to use his flipper and tucking it under his body. After examining Ernesto’s X-rays, a radiology specialist confirmed that Ernesto was suffering from severe osteomyelitis and the condition was getting progressively worse.

“Harbor seals use their hind flippers to propel themselves through the water, but the front flippers serve more as wings, helping steer the seal through the water,” says Dr. Shawn Johnson, Director of Veterinary Science at the Center. “A harbor seal with a broken wing won’t survive in the wild.”

It was clear to Dr. Johnson that Ernesto would need two healthy front flippers in order to have a chance at returning to his ocean home, and his only remaining option would be a special orthopedic surgery to remove the infected bone.

After examining Ernesto and his X-rays, veterinary surgeon Dr. Patrick Flynn of SAGE Centers for Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Care in Dublin, California, volunteered his time to perform the specialized surgery.

During the multi-hour procedure, Dr. Flynn removed the infected bone fragments from Ernesto’s flipper, including the entirety of his third digit (or the equivalent of his middle finger). He then mixed veterinary bone cement with antibiotics, forming more than a dozen tiny beads that he placed at the site of the injury. These beads allow the antibiotics to be released slowly and directly into the infected area.

After closing the skin and muscle layers with sutures and staples, Dr. Flynn and the Center’s veterinary team took a post-surgery X-ray to confirm that all of the infected material had been removed and the antibiotic beads were in place.

During Ernesto’s long recovery, he continued to be feisty and aggressive when our animal care experts tried to feed him and give him additional medication. But eventually as his pain dissipated, Ernesto spent more and more time in the pool learning how to use both of his flippers to swim and catch fish.

Before signing off on Ernesto’s release, Dr. Johnson needed to see for himself that the pup with a broken wing was finally able to “fly” through the water. By putting a GoPro video camera in the pool, Dr. Johnson was able to document Ernesto’s use of both flippers to hunt and catch fish.

Watch Ernesto use both flippers to catch a fish, beating out his pool-mate, Manaolana, a harbor seal with a shark-bite wound, for the prize.

After tripling in size during the course of his rehabilitation at the Center, Ernesto was released at Point Reyes National Seashore with two fully functioning front flippers and a second chance at life, made possible thanks to our donors.

You Can Make a Difference

Support from people like you makes success stories like these possible. Help pups like Ernesto return to their ocean home by making a gift today. You can even make a gift in honor of someone special by using one of our eCards.


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