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Marine Mammal Rescuer

Michele Hunter

The Trade
As the salaried director of operations and animal care for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, Michele Hunter instructs 80 animal-care volunteers who help rescue distressed seals and sea lions, and educate the public about them.

She has become Orange County’s unofficial pinniped matriarch. Under Hunter’s guidance, staffers at the center retrieve sick and injured aquatic mammals from a 42-mile stretch of coast, from Seal Beach to San Onofre. The facility nurses the animals back to health and then returns them to the wild. Although the center tries to offer the best of care, the atmosphere is anything but tranquil. Handlers have to restrain and tube-feed disoriented animals, which often try to bite them. We caught up with Hunter between compassionate beachcombings.

You tube-feed blended fish to seals and sea lions on a wet floor. What keeps you coming back each day?
I feel extremely fortunate to work with animals, and for an organization I’m passionate about. Even after a 14- to 16-hour day, knowing I’ve helped make a difference in their lives keeps me coming back. We also have the chance to speak to visitors on their behalf and give them the chance to see firsthand what some of the animals are recovering from.

Is there a fish formula secret recipe?
We blend warm water, herring pieces, Karo syrup, fish oil, and—if the animal is young—a marine mammal milk replacement as well. They also receive a daily vitamin [formulated for them], and antibiotics, if prescribed. Tube-feeding is a necessary and quick process that ensures an animal is getting the lifesaving nutrients that will aid in its recovery. During the height of our busy season, we may perform 100 tube-feedings a day.

Occupational hazards?
They do bite and, yes, it does hurt. But we’re careful to never let our guard down. We wear protective gloves, clothing, and boots. Other occupational hazards … well, on occasion you may get some of that delicious fish formula in your hair, or find fish scales on your arms even though you’ve taken a shower.

What do you make of recent reports that young, emaciated sea lions have been washing up on local shores?
El Niño conditions have caused the fish that sea lions typically eat to move to cooler waters. So we’re seeing sea lion pups coming to us in a state of starvation. Since these animals are in critical condition, we’re constantly monitoring their glucose levels, checking their temperatures to make sure they’re warm, and designing specific formulas to meet their individual needs. The care we provide is their lifeline.

How do you pen a pinniped?
During a rescue, we use a special net to capture them on the beach, and herding boards to help maneuver them safely into the cage. We use standard dog kennels to transport the animals from the beach to our facility. Typical patients include California sea lions, northern elephant seals, Pacific harbor seals, and occasionally a northern fur seal.

How many rescues each year?
We average 200 with a success rate of about 70 percent. The number of animals received and our success rate depend on whether there is a high-mortality event going on within the population.

Most memorable ones?
In 2002, we rescued more than 125 animals in five weeks due to a domoic acid outbreak. [The naturally occurring plant toxin can cause brain damage in marine animals.] There were days when we would get 10 rescue calls.

I still remember one volunteer telling her boss she had to leave to help because this was her family and they had an emergency. And during the 1998 El Niño rains, we spotted muddy water running into our outside pools. We moved the animals inside, and, within minutes, a mountain of mud covered the pens and pools. We had to tag and release a record 25 animals that day.

Does rescuing animals, naming them, and then letting them go take an emotional toll?
It’s more of a positive emotional journey. When you release an animal back to the ocean, it’s an extremely proud and bittersweet moment.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center
Go to pacificmmc.org to see video clips and photos of Pacific Marine Mammal Center staffers in action.

Photograph by Jason Wallis

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.

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