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Deliverance : Stranded Marine Mammals Find a Safe Inland Harbor in Agoura

August 07, 1992|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The young seal struggled to breathe, and its large, black eyes had gone dull. Stranded on Zuma Beach, it was too weak to flee the tourists and children who crowded around.

A surfer's girlfriend poured buckets of water on the animal to keep it damp in the midday sun.

Does anyone have a knife? a man asked. He wanted to put the seal out of its misery.

"Isn't anybody going to help it?" a little girl wondered.

Starving seals and sea lions are washing up on California beaches by the hundreds this year. Freak weather has driven away the fish they eat. Many of these sickly animals beach themselves near Malibu. Curiously, their fate falls into the hands of a county animal shelter--not much more than a dog pound, really--tucked into the sun-browned hills of Agoura 15 miles away.

At Animal Care and Control Center No. 7, the humane officers do the work of battlefield medics. They rescue beached mammals and keep them alive until they can be taken to a rehabilitation center.

But Agoura must patrol miles of inland territory and a stretch of coast from Sunset Mesa north to the county line with only three officers. They have scrambled to keep pace with as many as 10 beachings a day.

On this Thursday at Zuma, the seal lay stranded for nearly three hours before Officer Clarence Clegg arrived. In the same gentle voice he uses to soothe wild animals, he declined help from people in the crowd.

"That's all right," he said, moving in for the capture. "I do this every day."

The seal bared its teeth and cried in a hoarse growl. Clegg circled slowly, then grasped the four-foot-long animal by the scruff of the neck. After a brief struggle, he carried it in his arms to a caged compartment in the back of his truck.

"I'm glad it was a seal," he said, brushing sand from his khaki uniform and black shoes. "The sea lions try to bite you all the time. They never give up."

About half the sea lions that Clegg and his co-workers rescue will survive, according to marine-mammal experts. An even greater percentage of the captured seals return to health. The animals' chances often depend on Clegg's quick action.

"Agoura is the front line," said Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fishery Service in Long Beach. "They've been rescuing marine mammals for a long, long time."

Other Los Angeles county and city shelters perform such rescues, but not as often. Located half an hour inland, the Agoura shelter includes several squat buildings of a sunbaked hue. Yaps and howls echo from the kennels where strays are kept.

"Most people think this job is just dogs and cats," Clegg said, "but that's far from it."

The Agoura officers spend much of their time corralling everything from storks to deer to opossums. The work has brought a refreshing change to Clegg's life.

"I used to be a cop," said the athletically trim man. "I'd rather be helping animals than dealing with people on the street. It's a lot less dangerous and you can see your good results."

The county didn't train him to handle wild animals. Like other officers, Clegg learned on the job. And each spring, when thousands of sea lion pups are born on coastal islands, he knows he'll be hitting the beach.

"It's never dull," said Lt. Gail Miley, the shelter's supervisor. "In the busy season, we can get as many as seven to 10 calls a day."

Not all of those calls result in rescues. Seals and sea lions spend a good deal of time resting out of the water. Usually when they show up on a public beach, they are only sunning themselves. This year has been different.

The El Nino weather phenomenon has pushed warm currents up the California coast, triggering a chain reaction: Plankton have gone deeper in search of cool, nutrient-rich water. Small fish have gone deeper to feed on the plankton. Seals and sea lions, who rarely swim deep, have gone hungry.

Even in normal years, marine mammals face daily hazards. Pollution taints their home waters. Gill nets cause injury. Fishermen take potshots at them.

The seal that struggled onto Zuma Beach was obviously not well, its ribs showing through its sleek coat. When it first crawled into the shore break, lifeguard Chris Hammond grabbed the animal by the tail and pulled it to safety.

"If he'd gone back into the water in the shape he was in," Hammond said, "he never would have made it."

In the hours before Clegg arrived, the lifeguard warned beach-goers to keep their distance. Seals, with their dog-like faces and gregarious personalities, always attract attention. But a few weeks earlier, a sea lion pup had nearly torn the shorts off a teen-ager who ventured too close.

"Everybody thinks they're cute, cuddly animals but most of them are wild as sin," said Kathy Brown of ORCAS--Organization for Respect and Care of Animals of the Sea--a Westside volunteer group that drives rescued marine mammals to rehabilitation centers.

"The cuter the face, the more obnoxious the personality," she said. "There's nothing worse than a sick or injured wild animal."

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