To rescue or not to rescue? SeaLife Center emergency hotline provides guidance on animal strandings

Summer in Alaska means long days, a short burst of green and lots of tourists and locals hoping to spot marine wildlife on its coasts and ocean. And although watching a sea otter, whale, sea lion or seal may be thrilling, inevitably some onlookers may spot animals that are sick, stranded or in harm’s way.

Those who see a wild animal in distress, however, should take a step back and check with experts instead of attempting a rescue, said Dr. Kathy Woodie, clinical veterinarian and rehabilitation program manager at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

The SeaLife Center, a nonprofit aquarium in Seward, is the only permitted marine mammal wildlife response and rehabilitation entity in Alaska. The center hosts an animal rescue hotline and coordinates with local stranding organizations across the state.

Taking an animal out of the wild can have consequences for both the health of the animal and the rescuer, and can violate federal laws put in place to protect wildlife, Woodie said.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a federal law administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Marine Mammal Commission, it’s illegal for individuals — even those attempting a rescue — to take a marine mammal from the wild.

Woodie said many people aren’t aware that they are breaking the law by picking up or taking an animal from the wild.

“We don’t want anyone to get in trouble because they’re a concerned citizen,” Woodie said.

Once an animal is taken from the wild, rescuers must follow Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program System — which regulates how an animal can be treated and when — or if — an animal can be returned to the wild.

While some young animals can be rehabilitated and released, others — like a walrus or otter pup — the chances of surviving on their own are slim.

“If you pick up a harbor seal, that’s something where an animal does go back to nature,” Woodie said. “For sea otters, there are a lot of consequences. All of those animals, especially the very young ones, will be under human care for the rest of their life.”

The SeaLife Center’s 24-hour Stranded Marine Animal emergency hotline is staffed with experts in animal health and behavior who can guide a caller’s actions and send out help to the field if necessary.

The hotline receives about 400 calls annually, primarily between May and September. As of last week, the center had received 138 calls.

Many of which report normal behavior that doesn’t require rescue, Woodie said. Helping an animal can be as simple as sending an image, which helps rescuers assess the situation without disrupting the animal.

“Photos and videos give is an opportunity to see how an animal is breathing and moving,” Woodie said.

When necessary, the center sends out responders to the field or coordinates with local organizations to rescue to animals.

Rescuers have responded in the field to 40 marine mammals and three birds so far this year, and has done field responses for 1,066 animals — including seals, otters, gulls, dolphins, porpoises, whales walruses and seal lions — since the center’s founding 20 years ago, Woodie said.

Most recently, the center took in two young animals — harbor seal pup and sea otter pup — from different areas of the peninsula.

The cases demonstrate how different animals require different strategies once they’re picked up — and the consequences of doing so.

The sea otter pup was brought into the SeaLife Center after onlookers spotted the days-old animal struggling to stay afloat in Prince William Sound.

“There were some boaters in the area that were monitoring the area, and they did see the animal go face first (in the water). They acted what they believe was in the best interest,” Woodie said. “It’s difficult to play armchair quarter back. They had the animals best interest at heart.”

Named Ranney after Ranney Glacier, the sea otter pup has passed through its initial quarantine phase, but requires a bottle every three hours and is still being monitored around the clock.

The harbor seal pup was found stranded on a beach near Homer in May, after being separated from its mother.

“I believe that there was a situation that the animal was in an area where it was cut off from water. It was truly a stranding. … It wasn’t a possibility for the mother to return,” Woodie said.

While the harbor seal pup is gaining the education it needs to one day return to the ocean, the sea otter will likely be in care for the rest of its life.

Woodie said onlookers should also take into account their own safety before deciding to approach animals.

“These animals, while they seem like they would be very docile, they can get very aggressive, and move very quickly,” Woodie said.

Reach Erin Thompson at ethompson@peninsulaclarion.com.

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