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.

More in News

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Members of the Alaska House of Representatives on Saturday rejected the budget bill passed by the Senate earlier in the week. The bill will now go to a bicameral committee for negotiations, but the end of the legislative session is Wednesday.
House votes down Senate’s budget as end of session nears

State budget now goes to negotiating committee

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Candidate for Alaska’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives Tara Sweeney, a Republican, was in Juneau on Monday and sat down with the Empire for an interview. Sweeney said the three main pillars of her campaign are the economy, jobs and healthy communities.
Sweeney cites experience in run for Congress

GOP candidate touts her history of government-related work

One tree stands in front of the Kenai Post Office on Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai taking down hazard beetle trees

The city hopes to leverage grant funds for most of the work

Former Alaska governor and current congressional hopeful Sarah Palin speaks with attendees at a meet-and-greet event outside of Ginger’s Restaurant on Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Palin brings congressional bid to Soldotna

The former governor took time Saturday to sign autographs and take pictures with attendees

In this October 2019 photo, Zac Watt, beertender for Forbidden Peak Brewery, pours a beer during the grand opening for the Auke Bay business in October 2019. On Sunday, the Alaska House of Representatives OK’d a major update to the state’s alcohol laws. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Graphic by Ashlyn O'Hara
Borough, school district finalizing $65M bond package

Efforts to fund maintenance and repairs at school district facilities have been years in the making

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Members of the House Majority Coalition spent most of Friday, May 13, 2022, in caucus meetings at the Alaska State Capitol, discussing how to proceed with a large budget bill some have called irresponsible. With a thin majority in the House of Representatives, there’s a possibility the budget could pass.
State budget work stretches into weekend

Sessions have been delayed and canceled since Wednesday

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Alaskans for Better Government members La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson and ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Barbara Blake embrace on the floor of the Alaska State Senate following the passage of House Bill 123, a bill to formally recognize the state’s 229 federally recognized tribes.
Tribal recognition bill clears Senate, nears finish line

Senators say recognition of tribes was overdue

The Alaska Division of Forestry’s White Mountain crew responds to a fire burning near Milepost 46.5 of the Sterling Highway on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, near Cooper Landing, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Cooper Landing Emergency Services)
Officials encourage residents to firewise homes

The central peninsula has already had its first reported fires of the season

Most Read