Even as human impacts cause increasing numbers of animal strandings along beaches in Washington and Oregon, there has been a gap in critical care for them. Till now, there was no marine wildlife hospital in either state dedicated to rehabilitating hurt or sick animals.
SR3 stands for Sealife Response, Rehab and Research. The nonprofit organization already has a sea life ambulance. But till now, if an animal was really hurt or sick, the nearest hospital was in Sausalito, Calif.
Executive Director Casey Mclean, who is also a veterinary nurse, thinks she’s made that lengthy trek about seven times, mostly in attempts to rescue young Guadalupe fur seals – a threatened species that’s often found severely emaciated in the Pacific Northwest. She says the long drive was hugely stressful for the animals and the people.
“So now we won't have to do these 14- and 15-hour transports. They'll be able to get care right here in their own backyard,” she says.
Standing on a deck that holds two large outdoor pools of saltwater, near a tented area for smaller animals, Mclean says the Rescue Center in Des Moines will focus on about 11 species and could take in up to about 100 patients per year.
“The facility was designed so we could help everything from a tiny harbor seal pup all the way up to a large sea lion, several thousand pounds also, so we could help a small cetacean, sea turtles and sea otters. So really, we're trying to be as versatile as possible so that no matter what hits the beach, we're able to help, if it's needed,” Mclean says.
They can adjust air and water temperature in the holding areas. They’re prepared to respond to oil spills that could harm numerous animals simultaneously. And there’s a full clinical care suite where all kinds of surgery, X-rays, ultrasound and diagnostic lab work can be done.
Mclean says the biggest threat to these creatures comes from humans: animals get hit by boats or tangled in fishing gear, attacked by dogs or disturbed and separated from their mothers. Those impacts have been increasing with the booming population around Puget Sound. And then there are illnesses caused by toxins and warmer waters due to climate change.
“A lot of the diseases that these animals get are things that impact people as well,” says Dr. Greg Frankfurter, the hospital’s wildlife veterinarian.
He says a good example of that is illness caused by domoic acid that gets into shellfish and can cause amnesiac shellfish poisoning in people.
“It's something that affects sea lions, too,” Frankfurter says.
And sometimes finding, helping and studying injured or ailing marine life can point the way to things that affect human populations as well.
“There's a lot that's come out of that. It tells us different regions in the environment that are being impacted. It lets us understand sort of what the disease process is in these animals, as well as -- they've actually served as a model in human health, too,” he says.
So the new center will do more than rescue: Frankfurter says they’ll also collect data and contribute to science aimed at better understanding the causes of disease and injury throughout the Salish Sea.
And a reminder from the SR3 team that if you see an animal on the beach that you think needs help, leave it alone and call the stranding network.
“There are some things that marine mammals do that look really weird that most people would think is some form of distress,” says Mclean. “For example, sea lions will stick their flippers out of the water when they are thermo-regulating. And sometimes it can look to people like they need some sort of help when, in fact, it's a very natural behavior.”
It’s also normal for harbor seal pups to be left alone while their mothers are out feeding, sometimes for up to 48 hours. Human interference can cause harm, which is why federal law requires the public to stay 100-yards away.
And SR3 advises people who think they’re seeing an animal in distress to contact the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network online or by phone at 866-767-6114.
Still, Mclean says baby harbor seals sometimes haul out in very populated areas and sometimes they are attacked by dogs. And seal pupping season is coming up.
“And so likely our first patient might be a harbor seal,” she says.