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Without Mom, Harbor Seal Orphans Like Puma Struggle to Survive

Volunteers at The Marine Mammal Center are caring for more than a dozen harbor seal pups that were separated from their mothers at a young age.

April 10, 2017

The scene at Montaña de Oro State Park was grim: near a small, dark-colored pup was a half-eaten carcass of another animal. Could it have been his mother? That sight prompted a concerned beachgoer to call our 24-hour rescue line about a harbor seal pup in trouble.

Aliah Meza, the Operations Assistant at The Marine Mammal Center’s triage facility in San Luis Obispo, happened to be in Montaña de Oro State Park with Jim Mentgen, a rescue volunteer, checking on an elephant seal pup when she got the call about the harbor seal pup, later named “Puma.”

They carefully scanned the area for any signs that an adult harbor seal might be nearby keeping an eye on Puma, but he was an orphaned pup alone on a dangerous stretch of beach.

They watched Puma try to head out to sea, struggling to fight the waves in an area known as Hazard Canyon for its big swells and unforgiving rocky reef.

Too small and weak to battle the heavy surf, Puma was eventually tossed back onto the sand, where Aliah and Jim were able to scoop him into a small carrier. A three-inch piece of fleshy pink umbilical cord still attached to Puma’s navel indicated that he was just a few days old and much too young to fend for himself in such a harsh environment.

Harbor seal pup Rebel Princess is examined by veterinarians after being admitted to the Center’s hospital.
Photo by Sarah van Schagen © The Marine Mammal Center

With the help of a kind beachgoer, Aliah and Jim carried Puma up and down a long, rocky trail over a creek and through the woods to reach the road where the rescue vehicle was parked. From there, Puma was transported to our triage facility, where he could receive fluids and be stabilized before being sent north to the Center’s hospital.

When Puma arrived in Sausalito, he joined about a dozen other harbor seal pup patients in a special area of the hospital reserved for these vulnerable young orphans. Without the antibodies from their mothers’ milk, Puma and pups like him are at higher risk of illness.

The 150 harbor seal volunteers who provide orphans like Puma with nearly 24-hour care are specially trained to avoid cross-contamination with our other seal and sea lion patients to minimize any potential transfer of viruses or bacteria that could easily sicken these vulnerable pups.

The Center’s veterinarians also prescribe a standard course of vitamins and, if needed, antibiotics and other medications for our harbor seal pup patients to help treat any infections and boost their fragile newborn immune systems. And at every feeding, our animal care experts swab betadine, an antiseptic ointment, on any exposed umbilical stumps, like Puma’s, until they heal into a belly button.

In the wild, harbor seal pups nurse with their mothers for about four weeks before they are weaned, so Puma and many of our other pup patients are fed a special milk formula until they are old enough to eat fish. However, the milk from a harbor seal mom is much richer and more nutritious than anything humans can provide, so it takes much longer for these pups to gain enough weight to sustain themselves.

Percy receives care in the Harbor Seal Hospital.
Photo by Clive Beavis © The Marine Mammal Center

A few of our current patients, like Percy, another orphaned pup, are old enough to transition to eating whole fish just like they would in the wild. But because Percy never got the chance to learn important survival skills from her mother—like how to catch fish on her own—she needs the helping hands of our volunteers to lead the way.

During “fish school,” volunteers try to coax pups like Percy into chasing fish around the pool by tying string on a herring and dragging it through the water. This helps mimic the motion of a fish swimming in the ocean and can help the seal pups get interested in going after their meal.

Once Puma and Percy are able to catch fish on their own and compete with their fellow pen-mates, they’ll be well on their way to a second chance at life in the wild.

Leave Seals Be

Spring is pupping season along the California coast as mother seals and sea lions give birth. At this time of year, we typically rescue eight to 10 new patients every day!

If you see a seal or sea lion pup on a beach that looks sick or injured, please resist the urge to pick it up or get too close. The best thing you can do for these animals is to leave seals be and call our 24-hour rescue hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325) so that our experts can assess the situation and rescue the animal if needed.

You Can Lend a Helping Hand
During our busy spring season, pups like Puma and Percy are eating through more than 500 pounds of fish a day. At a cost of about $1 per pound of fish, those food bills really add up!

You can make a real difference for newborn pups like Puma by supporting our Dollar-a-Pound campaign with your gift today.


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