Make a Difference Monday: Pacific Marine Mammal Center Saves Sea Lions (and more) with Volunteer Muscle

Filed Under (Make a Difference Monday, Sea Lions, Seals, Volunteering) by Alexa & Cindy on 30-03-2009

Happy Monday, all! Today marks the debut of our Make a Difference Monday theme, in which we’ll attempt to start the week on an inspirational and informative note by bringing you stories of people and organizations who are making a difference for oceans and their resident animals.

We’re kicking it off today by giving you a glimpse into the heart and soul of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Beach, California, where it’s hip to be FAT – and fin-footed.

Haven by the Sea

Nestled in a coastal canyon and operating since 1971, PMMC has dedicated itself to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of Pinnepeds – the scientific term for the 34-species animal group that includes seals, sea lions and walruses – in the Orange County, CA-area. It is one of only six facilities like it on the west coast.

With a very small staff of only four full-time and three part-time employees, PMMC’s ablility to save the California Sea Lions, Northern Elephant Seals, Harbor Seals and the occasional Northern Fur Seal that are most common to the California coast, rests upon its huge group of 75 volunteers that put in 25,000 hours a year (25K!!) doing everything from capturing stranded animals to transporting them to doing their laundry and even working with them (but they must first go through a training program).

Now, that’s some serious ocean creature love.

The center can house up to 94 animals at a time, and its busiest time of the year is late winter into early spring (right now), when seal pups are weaning from their mothers and are in most danger of not having enough nutrition and becoming dehydrated. The animals in its care can also become injured from shark bites, getting caught in drift nets, being hooked by fisherman’s lines, or hurt in other ways by humans, as well as becoming infected with diseases. The average stay of an animal at PMMC is about three months, during which time they get fed well and gain fat – which helps insulate them in the cold ocean waters – and when they’re fully recovered, they are released back into the ocean, by – you guessed it – volunteers.

One Volunteer’s Tale

Greg Kajszo, volunteer and main blogger on the PMMC Volunteers’ Weekly blog (warning: cute video alert!) is a marine biology student at Cal State University-Long Beach with a very busy schedule, including a job. And then, there’s the center.
“I was talking to one of my lab professors a year ago, and she introduced me to the PMMC. From the second she told me about it, I knew I wanted to be a part of it!” he tells O4E, about falling head over fins for the center’s mission.

“Volunteers are needed every day at the center; they are what keeps it running,” he says. “I go in on Fridays because I’m still in school with a part time job on the side. Every volunteer has a similar story – I think we’ve all made time in our lives, no matter how busy, to take at least one shift a week at the center.”

A typical day at the center for Greg involves gathering lots and lots – and LOTS – of fish to feed their pinneped patients, as well as laundry (sick animals need tons of towels to keep them warm while they’re healing).

“Every few hours we collect the fish we prepared earlier and we separate the animals to feed them -that’s my favorite part,” he says.

No Touch, No Play Sometimes = a Tough Day

One of Greg’s least favorite parts is not petting or playing with the animals – but he knows it’s for their own good. Though the center cares for and carefully treats the animals, and even names them, their relationship with them has to stop short of loving them like pets.

“When I first started volunteering it was pretty hard to not make personal connections,” he says. “The Sea Lions are very social, and I couldn’t stop comparing them to dogs – I love dogs. I just had to keep reminding myself that these were animals who were only spending a short – but influential – time at the center, and the rest of their lives would be spent back in the ocean.”

A hard lesson to learn for an animal lover, but along with making the animals healthy again during their three-month average stay at the center, it’s the most important part of caring for them properly.

“To survive out there, they need to remain wild, and becoming too friendly with humans would be detrimental,” Greg says. “Sometimes we get animals that we can’t save, and it’s always hard losing them.

Disconnecting yourself from the animals makes it easier to accept the fact that they can’t always be saved. Eventually, it becomes easier to just do your job and understand that staying personally disconnected from the animals is the best way to help them, and helping them is the best way to show your affection,” he says.

That First Rescue – Talk about pressure!

Alexa’s big question for Greg was “what has your favorite day been volunteering at the center?” Why, the first rescue attempt, of course!

With the use of cages, hoop nets, boards to heard the animals into the cages, and blankets with which to restrain them, volunteers don gloves and steel-toed boots to make a rescue. Greg gave us his account of the first time he was called out on a rescue as his fave day so far:

“We receive calls from all of the Orange County coast to come and rescue pinnipeds. Sometimes the animals are just coming ashore to rest, but other times they are injured or malnourished and need our help. My first rescue was a malnourished Sea Lion pup who was about 25m out on a jetty in Newport Beach.

We had to go out onto the rocks with our nets, and everyone on the beach was crowding around to watch. You really feel pressured to do everything right when you have all those people watching you! sealsratch

When we tried to net the Seal Lion, he jumped into a crevice in the jetty, and we had to dive in after him! He kept crawling through small openings in the rocks until he made his way back into the ocean.

We ended up not being able to rescue him, but he was picked up by other volunteers the following day.”

Helping Out, for the Rest of Us

How can we, the marine mammal lovers of the blogosphere, help pinnepeds in need? Here are Greg’s tips for ways to help save the sea lion, seal, elephant seal and family:

    *If you live near a coast line, find a marine animal center at which to volunteer. (Note: PMMC in Laguna Beach is open daily 10-4 PT for free-to-the-public visits, and volunteers must be 18 to work at the center.)

    *If you’re land-locked and live, say, in Chicago (or anywhere), you can still donate to marine animal rescue centers. Some, such as PMMC, offer memberships.

    *Sponsor an animal: PMMC, for example, offers sponsorships of their rescue animals, which means you or your family can fund a specific animal’s rehabilitation at the center via the PMMC web site. Animal sponsors receive quarterly newletters and email updates on their pinneped’s progress as he/she heals and gets ready to be released.

    *Send supplies: Many centers need things like towels, blankets and un-flavored Pedialyte to help them care for the pinnepeds. Call or email a center and ask them what’s on their wish list, then mail a care package!

Greg, many thanks for sharing your story with us! You and your team’s dedication to the marine animals is truly amazing.

Tune in tomorrow for more of our developing pinneped-palooza, when we’ll go in-depth with amazing facts (and cute videos) on these fantastic, fin-footed creatures. We’re off now to check out the new abundance of cuteness on the PMMC Blog!

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