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Providing Creature Comforts

Among goals of Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center are rescuing animals and educating children.


Upstairs at the Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, children busily dissect dogfish sharks, run an obstacle course to learn about gray whale migration and make sea lion crafts.

Downstairs in the converted barn on Laguna Canyon Road, volunteers Kristi Benedict, Lindsey Byrne, Chris Lowrey and Kim Zagres tube-feed an ailing 180-pound elephant seal.

After three decades of rescuing stranded seals and sea lions and nursing them back to health, the nonprofit center is focusing on education and what may be the next generation of volunteers.

A new education department offers an after-school program for children ages 8-12. And Camp Pinniped, a summer day program, lets youngsters don the boots, slickers and gloves that volunteers wear, and participate in mock rescues, weigh fish for feedings and concoct fish "smoothies"--chopped herring used in tube feedings.

The children's programs are just the beginning of the group's plans, said Patricia Humphreys Waters, director of development. "We want to add outreach education, where we go into the schools with a program. We'd like to have a speakers program and we'd eventually like to do research," she said.

Fund-raising is a necessary step, and Humphreys Waters is leading the way. She is co-owner of Mistral Restaurant in Corona del Mar and is holding a $30-a-person wine-tasting benefit there Sunday.

On Dec. 8 and 9, there will be a family-oriented fund-raiser at the center, with ornament making, sugar-cookie decorating and visits with Santa. Tickets for the family fund-raiser, which starts at 6:30 p.m. each night, are $8 for children and $10 for adults.

The center has survived on private contributions, grants and the efforts of its 65 volunteers.

"They are bankers, nurses and teachers," said Zagres, an animal care supervisor and five-year volunteer who works for a veterinarian.

The center is often called upon to treat an ill or injured marine mammals. In the pupping season--February, March and April--at least one call a day comes in to the center, Zagres said. Some of the pups have been abandoned, and most are underweight and have parasites and respiratory problems from pollution. Some have bullet wounds or have eaten helium balloons, which they mistake for jellyfish.

Each animal receives a name. "If someone helps us on the beach, they might get to name the animal," Zagres said.

But volunteers don't make pets of the animals, said Dean Gomersall, animal care supervisor, who was an animal trainer at Sea World in San Diego and at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

The fun part of the job, Gomersall said, is the release. Princess Buttercup, an elephant seal who came into the center at a scrawny 90 pounds and left at 206 pounds, was recently set free about three miles offshore.

"She swam around on the top for a while, and then she dived," Gomersall said.

Of the 43 animals rescued this year, 80% have been rehabilitated and released, he said.

"We give them a second chance."

* Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center, 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. (949) 494-3050. Web site:

To be considered for this column, please send information to Lynn O'Dell, Los Angeles Times, Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626. (714) 283-5685.


Reservations are required to attend a wine-tasting fund-raiser for the Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center from 5-7 p.m. Sunday, at Mistral Restaurant, 440 Heliotrope Ave., Corona del Mar. $30. (949) 723-9685.

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