Five seal pups may not have realized it, but Oct. 21 was to be their last morning in the Wolf Hollow rehabilitation pools.
Skipper, Marble, Arctic, Nymph and West Coast Lady had gained enough weight and showed they could hunt and feed for themselves, and it was now time for them to begin their new lives in the wild.
“One of the things we look for when releasing is behavioral factors: whether or not they are diving to the bottom and scooping up fish, exhibiting self-feeding actions, putting on enough weight,” Wolf Hollow Executive Director Chanda Stone explained. “Once they reach that goal weight, we start doing blood draws to check and see if they truly are ready for release.”
Wolf Hollow is a local non-profit whose mission is to promote the well-being of wildlife and their habitats through rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wildlife, public education and non-invasive research.
Approximately a dozen people quietly waited on the shoreline of Turn Point on San Juan Island for the pups to arrive on Oct. 21. Six of the individuals had won a release viewing during the non-profit’s fundraiser over the summer. Far out in the calm waters, several harbor seals poked their heads out for a look around.
“They each have their own personalities just like people, so it depends [if they will be territorial],” Stone said.
Although there may be an aggressive, territorial male, generally the seal pups find a group to hang out and stay with. Staff at Wolf Hollow know this because the seals they release are tagged on their flippers. Like getting one’s ears pierced, it may hurt momentarily, then subsides.
Wolf Hollow and Marine Mammal Stranding network staff arrived with the seals and carried them in their transportation cages down to the shoreline. Once released, some pups will race out of the cages, ready to be wild, while others take their time, seemingly unsure about leaving their security. These pups neither raced nor lagged, but seemed to know exactly what to do: going forth into the sea. The cages were then propped upright, preventing the seals from attempting to return.
“They are used to fresh water in their pool,” Stone told the group. “So the buoyancy of the salt water may feel strange to them.”
Wolf Hollow has been rehabilitating and releasing seal pups since roughly 1985. That year they only received two. The organization at that time was the only one in the area that had the capability to rehabilitate seal pups. After moving to a location with more space in 1986, they rehabilitated 20 pups. Other facilities have formed around the region since then, easing pressure off Wolf Hollow.
When asked if San Juan County has a high number of seal pup strandings, Stone said, “Anywhere there is a human, this is typical. Strandings usually occur because of negative human interaction.”
Unsurprisingly, boats are a big disruptor in seal behavior, causing mothers to separate from their pups. Should a person find a stranded seal or any marine mammal, call the San Juan County Marine Stranding Network at 1-800-562-8832.
“Do not touch the seal, do not let your dog touch the seal, do not take selfies with the seal,” Stone said. “Call the Stranding Network and they will check it out. They are field biologists, they know what they are doing. They will bring the animal to us and we can take it from there.”
When asked if seal pups had ever been brought in with wounds from dogs, Stone said some seals have had bite marks.
“Each seal has its own story. We can only make educated guesses based on what we see,” she explained.
Skipper arrived at Wolf Hollow in July at only four days old and weighing 17.2 pounds. His umbilical cord had been ripped off, leaving an open wound. He was thin, dehydrated and weak. Skipper was treated with antibiotics for a potential umbilical cord infection and was gradually introduced to seal formula. After a few days, Skipper grew stronger and became active, blowing bubbles and chasing his tail.
Marble was six days old when she arrived at Wolf Hollow in July. She weighed 14.3 pounds, and was weak, emaciated, dehydrated and hypoglycemic. She also had a small wound on her chin. She was given oral fluids to rehydrate and was treated for her conditions. After a few days, she became more active, rolling and splashing. Her alligator rolls made it difficult to tube-feed her.
Arctic was first seen in July. At four days old, he weighed 18.6 pounds, was thin, cold, lethargic and dehydrated. He also had a fresh umbilical cord. Arctic was warmed under a heat lamp, given fluids and started on antibiotics to prevent an infection. By the third day, he was swimming and chasing his tail. Ten days later, his umbilical cord healed. Arctic then spent time swimming in a bigger tub with other seal pups.
Nymph was seen toward the end of July, alone but active and swimming. A few days later, however, the Marine Stranding Network reported that her body condition had declined, and she was hauled out on a busy beach. Stranding Network staff brought her to Wolf Hollow. Nymph was seven days old, weighed 12.5 pounds and was dehydrated with labored rapid breathing and heart rate. Nymph was also congested with small wounds on her flippers. She was given fluids to rehydrate, gradually introduced to high-fat seal formula and started on antibiotics.
Nymph was difficult to tube feed as she was wriggly and would bite the feeding tube. After a few days, she would take short swims but became cold and shivery. It took more than ten days before the wounds healed, and she no longer needed antibiotics. She began swimming in a bigger tub and became more active after that.
West Coast Lady arrived at the end of July. She was seven days old, weighed 14.3 pounds and was thin and dehydrated, with infected wounds on her back and flippers. Like Nymph, West Coast Lady was given fluids and a high-fat seal formula and started on antibiotics. Within a few days, she became increasingly energetic and started blowing bubbles. In less than a week she gained nearly three pounds.
As these five pups were treated, fed and grew, barriers were installed to maintain a distance between caretakers and the pups.
“It’s also why we don’t have people out at the site,” Stone explained.
Not only would dependence on humans damage the transition back to the wild, but being accustomed to contact with people could be dangerous for both humans and the wild animals they treat, from seal pups to fawns and birds of prey.
According to Stone, three to six different enclosures are needed to prepare an animal for release. The first area treats the animal, then muscle mass and muscle memory need to be built up, and then final preparations for their next journey are made.
“I want to thank the staff. They do the hard work and most of it is unseen,” Stone said. “But that is the way it has to be.”
Stone gave special thanks to wildlife rehabilitators Penny Harner and Elizabeth Bukovec, and Education Coordinator Shona Aitken, saying those three are the bedrock of Wolf Hollow.
“The organization would not be able to do the work it does without them. A majority of us are women, so people have this idea we are these crazy ladies in the woods who like to help animals,” Stone laughed.
However, those animals are often injured and in need of care as a direct result of human activities, including being hit by cars, shot or ingesting poisons and disrupted by boats, traffic or noise.
“It takes more of us to be aware of our surroundings. Most of us aren’t trying to harm animals, we just need to be aware of our impacts,” she said.
Skipper and friends remained in the calm bay, exploring the new sights and smells of their new home, first swimming close to the small crowd before going further and further into the Salish Sea.
A short documentary clip “Pups,” highlighting Wolf Hollow’s seal pup releases, was featured during the Friday Harbor Film Festival at the end of October. To learn more about Wolf Hollow visit https://wolfhollowwildlife.org/.