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A place for unwell marine mammals to be loved, set free

Under CC license from Flickr user mikebaird

This story aired most recently in our 3/28/23 episode of Crosscurrents.

The standard breakfast at the Marine Mammal Rescue Center, in Sausalito, is fish, fish and more fish. It’s so fishy, in fact, that the volunteers who donate their time also donate some of their clothes to the special animal hospital.

“Whatever clothes you wear here, you can’t wear anywhere else,” says Carol Wilson, a volunteer for 10 years who was there on a Friday morning helping prepare breakfast, mostly herring, in the huge industrial-looking kitchen.

“It’s really hands-on, I do amazing things here. I gave shots to animals, I have taught countless seals how to eat fish, I have drawn blood from dead animals,” says Wilson.

Volunteers are charged with sorting big bricks of frozen fish for the marine mammals. They thaw them out and make sure there are no lacerations. The smallest cut can have enough bacteria in it to harm the animals, and the discarded fish goes into the grinder. Once breakfast is ready, the fish is carried out to the pens in metal buckets

Being that it is an animal hospital, some of the fish is used to deliver medicine.

“You can tell it is a med fish because the end of the fish is cut off… And the pills are stuffed inside,” Wilson says.

Volunteers wear rubber boots and slickers, like rubbery fisherman’s overalls, and step through a solution of hydrogen peroxide before going in and out of the animal pens, and from the pen areas to other areas of the center.

Every morning the veterinarians go through each patient’s chart and decide how much they get to eat. Education volunteer Tamara Thomas must feed one and three-quarter kilograms of fish to a California sea lion called Fulano.

Each animal has a name.

“The person who calls in the rescue, when you see this animals sick, injured, hurt somewhere, they get to name that animal – they get to name that patient,” Thomas says.

But there are other means of identifying the animals. Each one has an orange tag with a specific number on its front flipper. That way, if a patient like Fulano ends up back in the hospital, they’ll be able to recognize him.

It’s necessary to take precautions when entering the pens. Volunteers stand behind wooden boards that look similar to riot shields as they prepare to serve breakfast to a pair of sea lions named Wolverine and Bandicoot. The boards have teeth marks in them.

“You want to always stay behind the board,” Wilson says. “Sea lions are fast and they have teeth and they bite.”

“So we are going to toss a fish in just to get it in the pool. Everybody eats in the water, in the pool,” Thomas says.

There are two reasons for throwing fish in the water: it distracts the animals while people enter the pen, and it keeps them sharp. These animals aren’t pets – they’re patients – and they’ll eventually return to the ocean where they will have to hunt and fish in the water.

Rescuing these animals is a human responsibility, according to Jim Oswalt, a spokesman for the Marine Mammal Rescue Center.

“These animals strand on beaches and other spots for a reason, either illnesses, in some cases caused by human activities, ocean trash entanglements, gunshot wounds and other bad things that happen to marine mammals as a result of humans,” Oswalt says.

The center also does scientific research that directly contributes to human medical science. Some of these animals come with cancers and illnesses that can also affect humans. Thanks to the research that the center conducts, it is known that the algae blooms that are a danger to marine mammals are the same ones that keep humans from eating oysters during certain seasons.

“We get animals, California sea lions in particular, who are suffering from what’s called ‘domoic acid poisoning.’ It’s toxic algae, basically,” Oswalt says.” Now, it’s caused by harmful algal blooms, which is a naturally occurring thing in the ocean, but what isn’t natural is the spread of it.”

Marine mammals eat the fish that have eaten that algae and then become sick, in some cases suffering from seizures that can destroy the brain over time, according to Oswalt.

“It also makes them disoriented so pretty soon you see animals ending up on the highway in the Central Valley for instance...we get a rescue call saying ‘we see an animal here on I-80,’” he says.

Once an animal is given a clean bill of health it is ready to be released. It is brought to the beach in a large kennel and set free. Of course, the Marine Mammal Rescue Center keeps track of the ones they’ve released with those little orange tags. And there are many of them – swimming up the California coast right now.