STARV­ING SEA LIONS WASH­ING ASHORE BY THE HUN­DREDS IN CAL­I­FOR­NIA

Animal Scene - - PET BULLETIN - Text by JACK HEALY

By the time Wendy Leeds reached him, the sea lion pup had lit­tle hope of sur­viv­ing. Like more than 1,450 other sea lions that have washed up on Cal­i­for­nia beaches this year, in what an­i­mal ex­perts call a grow­ing cri­sis for the an­i­mal, this 8-month-old pup was starv­ing, stranded and hun­dreds of miles from a mother who still needed to nurse him and teach him to hunt and feed. Ribs jut­ted from his vel­veteen coat. The pup had lain on the beach for hours, be­com­ing the tar­get of an ag­gres­sive dog be­fore man­ag­ing to wrig­gle onto the deck of a mil­lion­dol­lar ocean­front home, where the owner shielded him with an um­brella and called an­i­mal con­trol. In came Leeds, an an­i­mal-care ex­pert

at the Pa­cific Marine Mam­mal Cen­ter, which like other Cal­i­for­nia res­cue cen­ters is be­ing in­un­dated with calls about lost, ema­ci­ated sea lions. “It’s get­ting crazy,” she said. Ex­perts sus­pect that un­usu­ally warm wa­ters are driv­ing fish and other food away from the coastal is­lands where sea lions breed and wean their young. As the moth­ers spend time away from the is­lands hunt­ing for food, hun­dreds of starv­ing pups are swimming away from home and flop­ping ashore from San Diego to San Fran­cisco. Many of the pups are leav­ing the Chan­nel Is­lands, an eight-is­land chain off the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia coast, in a des­per­ate search for food. But they are too young to travel far, dive deep or truly hunt on their own, sci­en­tists said. This year, an­i­mal res­cuers are re­port­ing five times more sea lion res­cues than nor­mal - 1,100 last month alone. The pups are turn­ing up un­der fish­ing piers and in back­yards, along in­lets and on rocky cliffs. One was found curled up in a flower pot. Last week, Seaworld San Diego said it would shut its live sea lion and ot­ter show for two weeks so it could spare six of its an­i­mal spe­cial­ists for the res­cue and re­cov­ery ef­fort. “There are so many calls, we just can’t re­spond to them all,” Justin Viezbicke, who over­sees strand­ing is­sues in Cal­i­for­nia for the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, said on a con­fer­ence call with re­porters. “The re­al­ity is, we just can’t get to these an­i­mals.” As the in­jured an­i­mals pro­lif­er­ate, their en­coun­ters with hu­mans are grow­ing. Some peo­ple of­fer mis­guided help such as dous­ing the pups with wa­ter or try­ing to drag them back into the ocean. Oth­ers take self­ies with the stranded an­i­mals, pet them or let their chil­dren pre­tend to ride them, res­cuers said.

As Leeds ap­proached the quak­ing sea lion on Capis­trano Beach, she frowned at a pile of tuna near his muz­zle. “Has some­one been try­ing to feed him?” she asked. Many are sick with pneu­mo­nia, their throaty barks muted to rasp­ing coughs. Par­a­sites have swarmed their di­ges­tive sys­tems. Some are so tired that they can­not scam­per away when res­cuers ap­proach them with nets and tow­els and heft them into large pet car­ri­ers. “They come ashore be­cause if they didn’t, they would drown,” said Shawn John­son, di­rec­tor of vet­eri­nary science at the Marine Mam­mal Cen­ter in Sausal­ito. “They’re just bones and skin. They’re re­ally on the brink of death.” This year is the third in five years that sci­en­tists have seen such large num­bers of strand­ings. Re­searchers say they worry about the long-term con­se­quences of global warm­ing and ris­ing ocean tem­per­a­tures on a sea lion pop­u­la­tion that has evolved over thou­sands of years to breed al­most ex­clu­sively on the Chan­nel Is­lands, re­ly­ing on cir­cu­lat­ing flows of Pa­cific up­wellings to bring an­chovies, sar­dines and other prey. “The en­vi­ron­ment is chang­ing too rapidly,” said Sharon Melin, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist with the Na­tional Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice who found that pups on the Chan­nel Is­lands are 44 per­cent un­der­weight. “Their life history is so much slower that it’s not keep­ing up.”

Sci­en­tists said it was too soon to pre­dict how these strand­ings and deaths could af­fect Cal­i­for­nia’s sea lion pop­u­la­tions, which stand at what sci­en­tists say is a healthy 300,000. As their moth­ers leave them to take longer, less pro­duc­tive for­ag­ing trips, the pups are sim­ply not grow­ing nor­mally. “We do ex­pect the pop­u­la­tion to take a drop,” Melin said. “Prob­a­bly not some­thing cat­a­strophic, but prob­a­bly a re­ally good hit. It is go­ing to im­pact the over­all pop­u­la­tion even­tu­ally if we con­tinue to have these events back to back.” Res­cue and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion groups like the Pa­cific Marine Mam­mal Cen­ter, in La­guna Beach, have the feel of big-city emer­gency rooms. Vol­un­teers and staff mem­bers pull up with crates of freshly beached sea lions to be weighed and ex­am­ined. They shave num­bers into the an­i­mals’ brown coats, warm the cold­est ones in salt­wa­ter baths, and try to coax them back to health with smooth­ies of her­ring, Karo syrup, Trader Joe’s brand salmon oil and other nu­tri­ents. Many have re­bounded, gain­ing weight and grad­u­at­ing from in­door hold­ing pens and tube feed­ings to eat­ing small fish and romp­ing in out­door pools. The gaunt new ar­rivals lie for­lornly in­side, lethar­gic and scrawny. The re­cov­er­ing ones loll out­side like sun­bathers on a crowded roof deck, rolling around in hose spray and oc­ca­sion­ally flap­ping around the small pools in their pens. Af­ter four or five weeks, many should be ready to be re­leased back into the ocean. But death rates are sober­ing, and staff mem­bers say they have to make quick and some­times painful de­ci­sions to eu­th­a­nize an­i­mals un­likely to sur­vive. Of the 1,450 sea lions scooped up from the shores, about 720 are be­ing treated, Viezbicke of NOAA said. Michele Hunter, the cen­ter’s di­rec­tor of an­i­mal care, said, “It’s very dif­fi­cult to see so much death.” On Capis­trano Beach, Leeds hauled the quak­ing sea lion into a ken­nel, ac­cepted a $20 do­na­tion from the home­owner who had called in the re­port and headed down the high­way to a fish­ing pier where a life­guard had spot­ted another pup in the sand. This one was small and cool to her touch with ragged, un­steady breath­ing, so she piled both an­i­mals into the same ken­nel so they could keep each other warm. They seemed to bond quickly: When Leeds reached to­ward one, the other snapped at her hand. Within the hour, vet­eri­nary work­ers would de­cide that both pups were too starved and sick and had to be put down. For the mo­ment, the two curled up to­gether like a pair of brown socks for the ride back to the res­cue cen­ter.

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