Abandoned seal pups – what to do if you find one
THE SCOTTISH Sea Life Sanctuary, near Barcaldine, rescues as many as a dozen injured, sick or abandoned seal pups every year.
A rescue normally begins with a telephone call from a member of the public. Staff at the centre will try to gather as much information from the call as possible by asking questions about the location, size and condition of the pup.
They will also ask whether there are any adult seals nearby as sometimes the mother is just off-shore waiting to come and collect her pup once the people have left the area. From these questions, staff try to work out if the pup is in trouble or if it has just hauled out for a rest.
Often they advise the caller to leave the pup alone for a number of hours and to check on it later. If the pup is still there after 12 to 24 hours the seal care team will go and check the situation themselves. If the pup requires care it is brought back to the centre’s seal pup nursery.
The isolation unit is an area of the nursery separate from the main nursery where new arrivals are put till they are stabilised from their journey.
On their arrival at the centre, the pups are given an initial assessment to establish what is wrong with them. The seal care team records their weight, temperature, sex, make sure they have no infectious diseases that could be passed on to other pups in the nursery at the time and agree on the programme of treatment. The pup then receives its first feed which is normally rehydration fluids.
Sometimes the pups that come in are very weak or very young and will need fed every four hours, at least five times a day.
As the pups get bigger and stronger, the team gradually cuts down the number of feeds so that normally after three or four weeks the pup receives its last feed at 9pm. The team normally starts work at 8am, checking all seals in the nursery followed by the first feed. The newest arrivals are given a formulated seal milk called multimilk or a special fish soup (liquidised herring and rehydration fluids).
As the seal gets stronger staff can reduce the frequency of feeds and increase the quantity of food. Solids are then introduced in the form of a small amount of whole herring. Gradually the pups are weaned off the fluid feed and switch on to a full-time diet of herring.
Once the pups are hand feeding on whole herring, they can be moved to the weaning pool (2.5m by 4m) which has a haul out area and is quick to drain and fill. Here the pups learn to eat herring by themselves without the seal care team hand-feeding them.
It is good for the pups to be in the weaning pool because at last they have access to water, which encourages them to swim and build up their muscles.
Outside seal pools
When the pups reach 20-25kgs and are able to feed on whole herring proficiently they are moved outside to the main seal pools with the resident adult seals and any other seals in the process of being rehabilitated.
They are now only fed twice a day and have to compete for food with other seals in the pool, which means they build up their swimming strength and speed.
The seal care team monitors the weight of the pups carefully and checks how much they have gained each week. The target weight is 35kgs for a common seal and 45kgs for a grey seal. When the pups reach this they are ready for release.
During their stay in the centre the pups are tagged. This is done so that if the pup was found in difficulty after its release the team would know its history. However, the team has never had any of its seal pups found in trouble after their release.
The release day
This is a very exciting day for the seal care team.
The seal pool is drained first thing in the morning to allow them to catch the pup. They normally try to release the pups in pairs or threes.
The seals are loaded into the back of the van for the journey to the release site. Every so often, the staff stop to douse the pups with seawater to prevent them from overheating.
A suitable seal release site should be near an existing seal colony, be in a reasonably sheltered location, have no fish farms close by and be isolated from human interference.
Once they get to the release site, they lift the pups to the shore’s edge in their carrying cage, lift the gate and let the pup flop into the water by itself.
When two pups are released at once they sometimes stick close together but, invariably, after a while, go their separate ways. Staff always stay to see how the pups get on. Some pups take their time and investigate everything, while others make a beeline for the open sea and don’t look back.
Do’s and don’ts
Do keep you distance. The mother will only return to feed her pup when she thinks it is safe to do so. If there are people close by she will not come ashore.
Don’t attempt to handle the pup. The mother may reject her pup if it is handled. It is a wild animal, it may bite and can carry infectious diseases.
Don’t attempt to put the pup back in the water. It may be out of the water for a good reason.
Don’t ignore the situation. If the pup is thin, injured or seems unwell (noisy breathing, runny nose, coughing) it needs help.
Do tell an appropriate organisation. Call the SSLS on 01631 720386 or contact the nearest SSPCA officer.