By Natasha Lee
DARIEN – The Darien-based animal rights organization Friends of Animals recently joined with a Los Angeles-based marine rescue agency to help fund the organization.
The merger with Marine Animal Rescue will allow its founder and sole employee, Peter Wallerstein, to focus on rescuing distressed and injured mammals, with Friends of Animals overseeing marketing and fundraising.
The organization’s $100,000 operating budget is funded through donations and sponsorships. Saving animals and raising money became difficult to juggle, Wallerstein said.
“I spent 23 years fighting to keep this thing going and not missing one rescue call in all those years,” Wallerstein said in a phone interview from Los Angeles earlier this week. “Much of it’s been a burden, and I feel a lot of the burden has been lifted by an organization that I have a lot of respect for.”
With the help of Los Angeles County police and fire departments, the U.S. Coast Guard and lifeguards, Wallerstein said, he saved 193 sea lions, harbor seals and dolphins last year found entangled in netting or injured from fish hooks or that had swallowed plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish. California sea lions have been dying at an alarming rate from domoic acid, a toxin found in blooming algae, Wallerstein said.
Rescued animals are treated at a marine animal care facility in San Pedro, Calif., and then released into the ocean. But the shelter can fill quickly, leaving injured mammals few options for care, Wallerstein said.
Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral said her group plans to raise money to buy Wallerstein new rescue trucks and equipment, and eventually build a rehabilitation center.
“We share the vision and the high standards that he has for treating injured and orphaned and sick animals, and what he needs is the support we can offer,” Feral said.
Feral said she was introduced to Wallerstein through a mutual friend several years ago and was impressed by his dedication.
“Here’s a guy who puts himself out there every single day of the year,” Feral said. “He gets these animals the best care and a chance to be cured and released into nature again.”
Known as the Whale Rescue Team for the last 23 years, Wallerstein renamed the organization this week to incorporate the types of animals he rescues. A telephone hot line allows public safety officials and residents to alert Wallerstein to injured mammals.
Wallerstein said the partnership with Friends of Animals will allow him to hire and train staff.
Wallerstein has no formal training in marine biology and said he gained his experience from years of sailing and excursions with marine researchers.
“I just gained my experience by hanging around the right people,” he said.
Feral said her organization, which turned 50 this year, wants to work with organizations that share the nonprofit group’s mission of animal cruelty prevention. Last month, Friends of Animals was appointed by a Texas judge to manage an animal sanctuary in San Antonio after allegations of misspent donations and poor living conditions were investigated and later dropped.
Since the decision, the organization has increased the staff and is refurbishing the sanctuary, Feral said.
“We’re 50 years old,” she said, “and instead of sitting back on our laurels and getting smug, we’re stretching, and it feels like the right thing to do.”
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