Animal rehabilitators band together to care for the largest seal population on the east coast.
By Cynthia Anderson
Photograph by Chris Becker
When the call came at 9 a.m., Don Foote was ready. He’d been up since 6, more or less waiting for it. Chairman of the board of Marine Mammals of Maine (MMoME), Foote also serves as one of its chief volunteers and gofers. Spring 2012 was turning out to be a busy season, which meant Foote’s retirement from his job as a bank vice president wasn’t quite as leisurely as he’d anticipated.
He didn’t mind. That morning, like all the others, he jumped in his GMC pick-up and drove — this time to Seapoint Beach in Kittery. There, just above the high-tide mark, he saw what he’d come for: a seal, lying on its side in the sand. A crowd was gathering. Foote grabbed his tools —blanket, latex and leather gloves, dog crate — and headed down the beach. He got the crowd to back off then moved in to assess the seal: a female gray, a pup, with characteristic charcoal-on-cream markings. She looked okay, although her breathing seemed labored, and she was thin.
She did have fight. When Foote went to restrain her with the blanket, she growled and snapped. What she really wanted, Foote knew from experience, was to roll over and come at him head first to protect herself. “Not the least bit happy with me,” he says. Once in the crate, en route to a Biddeford rehabilitation facility, the seal relaxed, gazing out at him with dark unblinking eyes. Foote regarded her with affection. “I believe we should leave the world a better place,” he says. “My thing is seals. I think they’re extremely interesting animals. They swim like bullets, you know. And they’re beautiful.”
Foote is not alone in his enthusiasm. Two days later at the Maine Mall, people swarmed a booth that featured live-broadcast music and a seal-naming contest as part of a marine-life festival. A boy ran his fingers over a pelt, accepted stickers and a magnet, while his mom pushed dollars into a donation box. “Seals are so cool,” the boy says. A man dropped his entry — “Apple” — in with hundreds of other names, including Frost, Fusilli, and Ai Chan (Japanese for love, the entrant wrote). “You guys are doing a wonderful thing, helping the seals,” he tells the booth’s staff. A girl plunged her hand, encased in a substance meant to simulate blubber, into a bucket of ice water. “You can’t feel the cold,” she says. “That’s why they don’t mind the ocean.”
Perhaps it goes without saying that almost everyone loves seals. Less obvious is the web of collaboration required to care for them in Maine, the state with the largest seal population on the East Coast. Born of recessionary need and of experience in doing things a different, more contentious way, the cooperation among entities that provide stewardship is striking. Together the organizations rescue stranded animals, provide medical care and rehabilitation, and raise funds for research and education. The booth at the mall, for instance, was hosted by three groups: the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center (MARC), Marine Mammals of Maine, and Allied Whale, which in any other nonprofit sector likely would find themselves competing rather than cooperating.
Cutbacks are part of it. Widespread affection for seals notwithstanding, money is tight. Keith Matassa, rehabilitation coordinator at MARC, recently attended a conference at which a federal commissioner set forth the current funding plight: “He said people are worried about employment, health care, and how they’re going to fill their gas tanks. Those three top the list. The environment and marine animals are thirtieth,” Matassa says. Yet as the dollars dry up, needs do not abate. Last fall and winter — in the biggest die-off since 2006, when morbillivirus killed hundreds of local harbor and gray seals — more than two hundred harbor seals died along the New England coast. At the same time, the state’s Department of Marine Resources stranding response program for southern Maine lost its federal funding grant. It was a big blow; calls to report stranded seals had to be re-routed to Massachusetts, and the Maine organizations scrambled to compensate. “That loss was pretty scary,” Matassa says. “More and more, those of us who do this work are realizing that we have to band together.”
If there’s an upside to the current reality that public funding is not commensurate with public regard for seals, it’s that collaboration among providers was already well under way — a conscious response to a time when that was not the case.
The seal pup Don Foote brought in lay on the floor of the wet-isolation room at MARC’s facility at the University of New England in Biddeford. That she’d been given a number — fourteen — rather than a name was indicative of how crucial the next twenty-four hours would be. When seals die in rehab, it often happens in the first day or two. So far, #14 was holding her own. Her blood work looked normal, and she was curled banana-shaped, rather than sprawled like her next-door-neighbor #10, who was struggling with kidney problems. Every so often #14 lifted her nose and sniffed, the bite of disinfectant surely as far from the smell of sea brine as it could be. When she swiveled her head, she could take in the pool behind her and, through the window, a view of the mouth of the Saco River and Camp Ellis on the other side.
“Number 10 threw up.” A student volunteer stood nearby, feet pushed into the rubber boots everyone wears in the clinic, a worried expression on her face.
“Okay, go ahead and clean her up. We’ll try the meds again later,” technician Asheley Simpson tells her. Already in 2012, MARC had treated nine gray seal weanlings like #10 and #14; ordinarily they only see two or three in a season. Nobody could explain why, just as no one knew for sure the reason for the die-offs earlier in the year, although a virus had been implicated.
On the other side of #14, a gray pup that had come in with abscesses was sharing a room and a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot pool with the only harbor seal on the premises. Both were seemingly on the mend, and both had been given names — Alfredo and Chief Ugnaught, respectively. The Chief dove and splashed in the pool while Alfredo watched from the side. Her sweet face belied Simpson’s description of grays as the “Rottweilers of the seal species,” animals she said she admired for their spirit in spite of the occasional bite.
Back in the main office, Matassa was waiting. “How’s the new one doing?” he asks when Simpson returned. Okay so far, she told him. And #10? “Still not feeling well.” Together they stared at a video monitor that showed the seals’ every move — Chief Ugnaught splashing in his pool, #14 sniffing the air, #10 lying with her head on a pallet. The statistics went unspoken: of the 150 rehabs MARC attempted last year, about half made it back into the ocean. Older seals, especially harps and hooded, generally do best. Gray and harbor pups — the bulk of MARC’s rehab population — tend to be more vulnerable. Even in nature, only 25 percent of those born during a given season will be alive two years later.
Matassa and Simpson discussed the upcoming harbor pup season — projected to be busy — and a seal health assessment in Rockland that Matassa planned to attend that weekend. The camaraderie evident between them wasn’t always there. A decade or so ago, when Simpson was part of a now-defunct organization called Marine Animal Lifeline, the two avoided interaction. “I didn’t like it when it was Asheley calling on the phone,” says Matassa, a low-key man whose office holds a seal skeleton, many books, a rubber ducky, and a note from George Bush, Sr., thanking him for “your TLC” for a baby seal found near Walker’s Point. “It’s true we didn’t get along,” Simpson agrees. “In my case, I was taking on aspects of the organization I worked for.”
The reference to Lifeline — and indirectly to its founder and president Greg Jakush — goes to the heart of earlier contentiousness in the stranding community, with Lifeline perhaps illustrating the ways in which competitiveness was counter-productive. Jakush founded Lifeline in 1996 and quickly grew it into the largest seal rescue facility in New England. At its peak, Lifeline handled hundreds of animals a year — responding to more than 500 stranding calls in 2005, for instance, of which about 250 resulted in in-house stays. No other organization on the East Coast came close to dealing with the number of seals that Lifeline did. According to a published report, Jakush was “bullish on taking in stranded pups sooner than later” — a controversial stance because mother seals in search of food often temporarily leave their pups on shore.
Also in 2005 — and perhaps not coincidentally — Lifeline lost a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that accounted for a significant portion of its operating budget. NOAA had awarded the organization almost $200,000 for each of the preceding two years, but rejected that year’s request for $152,000. In a 2006 interview, Jakush said the loss nearly forced Lifeline to close its doors. Officials maintained the denial was not personal. Lifeline’s proposal simply didn’t make it through the competitive evaluation process, said Teri Frady, spokesperson for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
Then, in April 2007, NMFS pulled Lifeline’s operating permit for releasing eighty-one seals without testing for morbillivirus. Jakush objected vociferously. “They came in knowing they were going to shut us down, come hell or high water,” he claimed at the time. He alleged that the service wrote a press release saying his permit had been revoked before it even did a site inspection. The result, in any case, was that twenty-one seals had to be relocated, and Lifeline’s doors closed. Jakush left Maine not long afterwards.
Exactly what led to the grant denial and Lifeline’s closure remains unclear, but by all accounts Jakush’s actions were not characterized by collaboration. “Greg was not a team player,” says Simpson. “And ultimately it’s all about the animals. It became clearer and clearer that all of us needed to be unified around the seals.”
After Lifeline’s closure, the remaining organizations struggled to fill the void. Cooperation — with other Maine entities and with agencies and aquariums throughout New England — has indeed been critical. As MARC technician Shannon Prendiville put it: “It became obvious that we’re in a field where competition does not foster success.”
According to Mendy Garron, NMFS regional marine mammal stranding coordinator, each organization has retained its own distinct focus, “yet somehow they’ve been able to come together as a collaborative to respond in a highly effective manner. The coordination they’ve developed works really well.”
Non-competitiveness and resource-sharing turn out to be even more essential in the face of chronic financial pressures. At MARC, for instance, a month’s veterinary care for one seal costs one thousand dollars, and a satellite tag used to track a newly released animal runs about two thousand dollars. During busy times, the facility goes through more than three thousand dollars worth of fish in a month. So it helps a lot that MARC and MMoME can sometimes share equipment and even diagnostic space.
Across all the organizations, staffers, board members, and volunteers alike seem adamant that the work must continue. To those who would argue that too much money and effort go into rescuing stranded seals, there is unified response that stewardship of marine animals is critical. “People say, if nature in her wisdom lets a mom leave her pup, then maybe we shouldn’t intervene,” Matassa says. “But what’s nature, and what’s something else? I think our environment is in trouble and the seals are showing it. They’re the sentinels, and we should pay attention.”
It’s clear, in any case, that the basis of human regard for seals — part stewardship, part science, part awe and wonder — means there’s no shortage of interest in their wellbeing. That interest took shape five weeks after #14’s admission to MARC, when she made the return trip to the ocean. About twenty-five people were on hand for the release, on a warm May day at Gilbert Place beach in Biddeford Pool. The seal had a name now — Sorprese — as well as a continued reputation for feistiness, even for a gray.
She arrived at Gilbert Place by van, in a crate that was set down in the sand about thirty feet from the water. Many seals try to remain with their human caregivers when the crate opens, but Sorprese barely hesitated before heading for the water — far different from the pup that had arrived at MARC dehydrated and underweight. When she reached the water, she went right in. The crowd cheered and clapped. About twenty feet out, the seal’s head popped up. She lingered a few moments before submerging again. And then she was gone.
Or so everyone thought. About five minutes later, the seal showed up again, a hundred yards down the beach. She was body surfing the waves.
Cynthia Anderson is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer whose work has twice been cited as notable in The Best American Essays.