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Why Do We Rescue?

As the California sea lion crisis continues, The Marine Mammal Center is committed to responding to every individual animal. But our reasons for rescuing these animals are about so much more than just the individual.

April 30, 2015

Volunteer Phil Warren rescues an emaciated sea lion.
© Rob Martel Photography

From its very beginning, The Marine Mammal Center has been an organization with animal welfare at its core. When our founding volunteers first began rescuing stranded sea lions, the effort was about easing suffering and lending a helping hand to animals in need.

This still rings true for us today—responding to suffering animals and providing them with life-saving care is the right and humane thing to do. But the reason we do this work is so much bigger than that now.

Record numbers of sea lion pups have been rescued this year.
© Pat Wilson, The Marine Mammal Center

Compassion in a Crisis
Earlier this month, we rescued our 1,000th animal for the year, and have now rescued more than 1,100. That means that in the first four months of this year, we have taken in more patients than we did during the entirety of 2014, and we are on pace to break every record set in our 40 years.

In the midst of a crisis like this, where does that compassion end? Why continue rescuing after the 100th, 500th, 1,000th seal or sea lion?

Because as much as this work is about giving each individual animal the care and attention it needs to return to the wild with a second chance, it is also about populations as a whole, the health of the ocean and even human health.

Ikaika is a male Hawaiian monk seal pup that was rescued in 2014.
© Koa Matsuoka, NMFS Permit 16632-00 and 932-1905-01MA-009526-1

Saving a Species
Thanks to the success of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, many of the species we rescue along our 600-mile range of coastline are no longer endangered. Experts say the current California sea lion population numbers near 300,000, and even with the current California sea lion crisis underway, that number is still in a healthy range.

But everything we’ve learned about marine mammals in our 40-year history has helped us become experts in how to care for species that are still at risk of extinction.

Our newly opened Hawaiian monk seal hospital, Ke Kai Ola, is a prime example. In just one year, our facility has helped rehabilitate and return six healthy Hawaiian monk seals to the wild. With fewer than 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals alive today, every healthy animal is crucial to the species’ survival.

But none of our work in Hawaii would be possible were it not for the four decades of experience we’ve gained here in California caring for many marine mammal species, including northern elephant seals, which have a similar biology.

In fact, Hawaii volunteers training to care for our Hawaiian monk seal patients travel to our facility in Sausalito to work with our elephant seals and learn best practices for animal feeding and care protocols.

Our teaching hospital also provides a vital training ground for marine mammal veterinarians from around the world. Each year, we host 20 to 40 visiting veterinary professionals interested in learning from our world-class team of experts.

Some of these visitors, such as those participating in our International Veterinary-in-Residence program, may go on to apply what they’ve learned to the care of endangered species in their own country.

Left: normal California sea lion brain section. Right: a not so normal one that has been affected by domoic acid exposure; notice the shrunken hippocampus in the center of the brain section.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Connections to Human Health

One sick sea lion won’t tell you much about the health of the greater population. But thousands of sick sea lions rescued over the course of four decades have taught us a lot. In fact, scientists at The Marine Mammal Center have discovered entirely new diagnoses with relevance to human health issues.

In 1998, our senior scientist, Dr. Frances Gulland, discovered that California sea lions are susceptible to a toxin called domoic acid that is produced by a type of algae. Domoic acid targets a specific part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for spatial processing and memory.

Sea lions affected by domoic acid toxicity often have seizures in addition to exhibiting other abnormal behavior. Scientists at the Center have collaborated on research showing that the brain lesions caused by domoic acid are nearly identical to those seen in temporal lobe epilepsy in humans, translating to a greater understanding of that disease.

Domoic acid can also affect humans who eat contaminated shellfish, resulting in a life-threatening condition called amnesiac shellfish poisoning. Because sea lions are often the first to be affected by a toxic algal bloom, we alert the public health department when we see an outbreak, which helps them better target their surveillance to protect human health.

Domoic acid toxicity isn’t the only illness both humans and marine mammals share. In a typical year, more than 17 percent of sea lions admitted to The Marine Mammal Center are suffering from cancer.

Remarkably, nearly every case is the same type: urogenital carcinoma. Similar to cervical cancer in humans, it starts in the cervix but by the time the patients reach our hospital, the cancer has usually spread through the body.

Cancer research built on our findings in sea lions has revealed some important links. Just as cervical cancer is related to a papillomavirus infection, the sea lions’ urogenital carcinoma seems to be related to a herpesvirus infection.

Researchers have also found a genetic link—animals with cancer have been found to be more closely related genetically than animals without cancer.

Tissue samples from sea lions with cancer have also been associated with higher levels of chemicals like PCB than sea lions without cancer. This organic pollutant is stored in the blubber, or fat layer, of marine mammals and builds up over time, much like it does in humans.

While there is more to be learned about the complex factors that play into the development of this disease, what we learn from these animals contributes to research that could eventually lead to cures for humans.

Fishing gear and other debris are a threat to wildlife and has a significant impact on the health of our oceans.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Sounding the Alarm

As we care for and diagnose these animals, we’re not just learning about the specific diseases that affect marine mammals, we’re also learning about the health of the ocean as a whole.

Animals like California sea lions serve as sentinels of the sea, alerting us to the dangers they face. Rescuing these animals can help raise the alarm and inspire public action on threats like pollutants, ocean trash, overfishing and global warming.

Because many of the threats marine mammals face are caused by human impacts, we feel an even greater responsibility to rescue, rehabilitate and return these animals to the wild.

The Marine Mammal Center is committed to going beyond rescue and research to provide education programming that also helps bring these issues to light. While the cute faces of our patients may draw in the visitors, our educators ensure they’ll leave with more awareness about the overall health of our ocean and what they can do to help.

We care about each animal that comes into our care, and we mourn the loss of those that we can’t save. But in every interaction with every patient, we’re providing compassion and care and advancing our collective ability to make a difference in profound ways.

Never enough fish.
© Pat Wilson, The Marine Mammal Center

You Can Save a Life

Help provide the critical care that our sick seals and 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.


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