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GIVING PINNIPEDS A HAND : Volunteers Help the Sick and Injured Make Their Way Back to the Sea

May 12, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

First-timers who volunteer to work at the Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach lose the idea in a hurry that they will be spending their days romping with a bunch of cuddly little beasts straight out of a vaudeville show.

If mucking out the animals' stalls each morning doesn't do it, then maybe an elephant seal trying to chomp off a foot will. Or perhaps defrosting a few dozen pounds of herring each day will provide the big wake-up, or having to pounce on an angry, squalling seal and hold it down while someone else takes a blood sample.

"The volunteers here do a lot of hard, grubby, messy, tedious kinds of work," said Judi Jones, the center's director of operations. "It's not glamorous."

Then again, there's Bambi.

Bambi, an almost ridiculously cute 8-month-old California sea lion pup with three bullet wound scars, is the darling of every biped at the center. They coo at her, fuss over her, beg to feed her from the herring bucket, fantasize about taking her home with them.

Bambi was found beached at Surfside on March 19, the victim of "some nice person with a gun (who) shot her in the head and the back," Jones said. "She couldn't put any weight on her left side when we first got her. The vet didn't think she was going to make it. But she's feisty. She's a fighter."

The Bambis of the world are the reason for the center's existence. Since 1977 the staff of the center, which is quartered in a red, barn-like former stable just off Laguna Canyon Road, has played Good Samaritan to sick and injured seals and sea lions, most of which have been found beached and helpless along the Orange County coast. (The center cares for California sea lions and elephant seals almost exclusively; it has rescued only one other marine mammal, a sea otter.)

Between 75 and 100 sea mammals--almost all of them young--are taken to the center each year to be treated, rehabilitated and, in most cases, released into the sea once again. And though many are brought in nearly dead, mostly suffering from natural ailments, 80% to 85% regain their health, Jones said.

Most days, the center is a temporary home to perhaps a dozen marine mammals. However, said John Cunningham, one of the center's directors, as many as 72 seals and sea lions have been cared for there at one time. Most can be treated, rehabilitated and released within about 2 months, Cunningham said.

Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Los Angeles, said there are 67,000 to 107,000 sea lions between Point Conception and Mexico and about 50,000 elephant seals in California waters. Their population off the Orange County coast is fairly stable, Cunningham said, and neither species is considered endangered, but "this year, we seem to be seeing more of the human effects. Gaffings, clubbings, shootings. I would have to say that primarily it's the fishermen who are probably doing it, but we hear accounts of people who just like to go out and shoot things."

Since January, nearly 70 dead sea lions have washed ashore on Orange County beaches, and federal and private biologists believe that most of them died after encounters with fishermen--either drowning after becoming entangled in gill nets or being shot by fishermen protecting their catch.

That figure is far higher than the 20 sea lion bodies washed ashore in Orange County last year. Cordaro said his agency estimates that about 2,500 of the animals will die as a result of gill-netting in Southern California each year, but only a small percentage of the bodies will wash ashore. Most are carried out to sea. The high number of beachings this year, he said, probably is the result of halibut gill-netting closer to the Orange County shore.

The deaths have prompted Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) to introduce Assembly Bill 1, which would ban most uses of gill nets in waters heavily populated by marine mammals. The bill currently is being reviewed by the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife.

Most of the animals trapped in the gill nets will drown, Jones said, but sometimes they manage to swim to the surface while still entangled. Cases of that sort at the center "come in spurts," Jones said. But they produce strong reactions from rescuers.

"I think frustration is not the right word," she said. "It's anger, anger beyond words. Seeing an animal in a gill net, cut all the way down to the muscle. A little animal like Bambi that some idiot for no good reason shot. She was in a lot of pain."

Another source of frustration and anger for the center's staff is the harm to marine mammals resulting from the recent Alaskan oil spill.

"We're disgusted," Jones said. "It's sort of a helpless feeling because what can you do now? Some of the people in Alaska contacted us to see if we could handle any of the sick sea otters, but I guess they decided that it was better for the animals to stay up there. We didn't get any.

"We're just sick about the whole thing."

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