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Autumn 2008 - Act•ionLine

by Peter Kobel | Autumn 2008

A Sea Change

Peter Wallerstein, who heads Friends of Animals’ Marine Animal Rescue organization in Los Angeles, reads about the rise in ocean temperatures with particular concern. Algae will bloom in warmer waters, and some of the blooms contain the dangerous, often deadly neurotoxin known as domoic acid. For the past 10 years, California marine animals have frequently succumbed to the poison, and in 2007, domoic acid levels were twice the previous high.1 (At press time, it was too early to gauge the severity of poisoning this year.)

Symptoms of domoic acid poisoning are dramatic. Laura Boehler, a paid Marine Animal Rescue intern, came face to face with a 200-pound pregnant sea lion in the throes of poisoning. “She was floating in the San Pedro Harbor, covered with fish hooks,” Boehler said. “The Los Angeles port police took us out on their boat. There she was, floating face down and almost lifeless. She was having a seizure, but each time we were able to get the boat close enough to hoop the animal, she would startle a bit and swim just far enough so that we couldn’t reach her.

“And the nets were getting heavier.”

“After about ten attempts,” Boehler recalls, “we went back to the truck and got a pelican net. The plan was to use the pelican net to push her into the large hoop net. I held the pelican net, while Peter held the hoop net. Suddenly, she spun around and swam head first into the pelican net.”

The rescue pair knew this was the only chance.

“So we hauled all 200 pounds of this sea lion onto the boat in a weak pelican net. We held our breath as the net creaked and the frame bent a bit, but we got her onto the deck. We got her to the care center within 20 minutes.”

Boehler recently finished a degree in zoology at California Polytechnic in Pomona, and now plans to attend veterinary school in order to ultimately focus on rehabilitating free-living animals. She has learned that “no two rescues are ever the same, and regardless of how ill a wild animal may appear, their strength and ability to charge and attack should never be underestimated.”

Before working as part of the Marine Animal Rescue team, Boehler didn’t know how intimidating it can be to rescue a seal or sea lion. A sea lion can bite -- harder, Boehler says, than a Doberman pinscher.

Most rescues involve seals, sea lions, and birds whose injuries were caused by humans. There are gill net entanglements, and hooks embedded in their skin or flesh or even bones. There’s the pollution, tar and oil, and even gunshot wounds. But the effects of domoic acid poisoning can be simply unpredictable.

“In over 23 years of marine animal rescue, one of the most disturbing and gut-wrenching sights for me has been looking into the face of a sea lion suffering from domoic acid poisoning,” Wallerstein says. “I see extreme fear in their faces as they struggle with the explosions of the toxins in their brains taking control of their minds and bodies.”

Wallerstein continues: “Some sea lions will arrive on the beach and remain in the wet sand area on their fore flippers, their heads bobbing back and forth as the toxin takes effect. Some suffer seizures. Their bodies shake violently, and their eyes are almost bursting out of their heads.”

Wallerstein, with some of the Los Angeles County lifeguards, has an extraordinary rescue track record. In 2007, MAR rescued 450 marine animals, including sea lions, seals, dolphins, sea birds, and a whale. In the first half of this year, the group has rescued more than 300 animals. But some of them don’t make it. There is only one place to take marine mammals for urgent care in the county, and that’s in San Pedro. As the poisonings peak, it frequently fills up, so that Wallerstein has no choice but to triage sick animals on the beach.

The longer a poisoned animal remains untreated, the less chance the individual will have of surviving the neurotoxin. At the very least, a delayed response will cause more long-term damage.

“As stranding numbers increase, so do the number of incidents with well-intentioned people,” Wallerstein adds. “People trying to hand-feed the animals who are too weak to get away, pouring water on already debilitated, hypothermic bodies, or pushing sea lions back into the water where some, incapacitated by seizures, will drown.”

Wallerstein believes leaving suffering animals on the beach for any period of time under any circumstances is inhumane and unacceptable. “We desperately need a more local place to bring these suffering animals.”

Marine Animal Rescue is developing plans to construct and operate a second Marine Mammal Center somewhere in the West Los Angeles area, in order to provide 24-hour emergency care for seals, sea lions, whales and dolphins. This would serve as a crisis center in events such as severe domoic acid outbreaks or a catastrophic oil spill off the Southern California coast. The plan is popular with the public along with many private and governmental agencies.

Currently, the rehabilitation of sick or injured dolphins in Southern California can only take place at Sea World, in San Diego. Should Sea World accept one, the stress of transport from Los Angeles to San Diego could kill the dolphin.

But the proposed site would offer state-of-the-art medical treatment and two specially designed dolphin rehabilitation pools. And no animal would be turned away.

The importance of the proposed rehabilitation site we’d like to fund cannot be overstated. In July, Wallerstein was faced with a sea lion pup whose mother was unable to nurse and who was quickly losing weight. Blood work showed parasites and a bad case of seal pox.

This should be the only reason sea animals should be in captivity, says Wallerstein: “If their only chance of survival is to be cared for by humans we should have a refuge where they can be cared for without having to perform for food. We also need to do our best to raise the pups to be released back into the wild.”

The current situation is unacceptable, Wallerstein explains. Newborn pups whose mothers aren’t nursing them and who aren’t wanted by an aquarium have usually been killed or simply left to starve. But with a new rehabilitation site, which we encourage our readers to invest in, this would change. Wallerstein will attempt to raise the pups to be released back into their natural marine habitat.

To make a tax-deductible gift to support our vital rescue and rehabilitation work, please make checks out to Friends of Animals with Marine Animal Rescue written on the memo line, and mail to Friends of Animals, 777 Post Road, Suite 205, Darien, CT 06820, United States.

  • 1. See Regan Morris, “Sea Lions Hit by High Levels of Acid Poison in California” — The New York Times (6 Jun. 2007).
Peter Kobel

Act•ionLine Autumn 2008

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