OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Seals on the beach: leave them alone

05/24/2002

NEWPORT - It's really very simple. If you see a seal pup that appears to be stranded on the beach, leave it alone.

No, don't try to help it. It almost certainly doesn't need help. Leave it alone.

No, don't pick it up and try to take it to the aquarium, or the police station, or to your hotel bathtub. Such actions actually might endanger the animal, and are certainly against the law, according to Oregon State Police Sgt. Swede Pearson. Just leave it alone.

Every spring it's the same, Pearson said. People visit the coast. They see a seal or sea lion pup alone on the beach. They think to themselves, "Oh, the poor thing! I must help it!" They scoop it up and take it … where? The fact is, there are no programs in Oregon to rear "stranded" pups.

A bigger fact is that it's against the law to harass sea mammals, and for the law's purpose, that includes picking one up in an effort to "save" it.

The biggest fact is that there probably is nothing amiss in such situations, according to Bruce Mate, Oregon State University Extension marine mammal specialist at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Seals give birth to their pups on Oregon beaches in the spring. At times, the mother seal will give birth to the pup that is not fully developed and must leave it ashore for periods of time while the pup completes its development and the mother hunts for food. The mother will return to nurse the pup at night, when there are no people about. Pups will often spend as long as a week on the beach before they have developed enough to go to sea with their mothers.

The animals are so cute, and appear so helpless, that people just feel compelled to try to help them. But if they do, there's a good chance the young animal, cut off from its mother, will die.

"Every year, people pick up pups and take them to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, or the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife," wrote Mate and Pearson in a statement this week. "It is against the policy of all of these facilities to take in these animals. Picking the animals up drastically increases the chance that the animal will not survive."

It happened again just this Tuesday, Pearson said. A couple visiting the Lost Creek State Park Wayside on the central coast found a seal pup, assumed it was in trouble, and took it to the aquarium. The aquarium wouldn't accept it, explained to the couple the mistake they had made, and suggested they put the pup back exactly where they found it.

The aquarium staff then called Pearson, who found the pair on the beach, trying to determine the exact spot they had picked the pup up.

The harbor seal pup "was brand new," Pearson said. "Its umbilical cord was still wet."

"Their heart was in the right place," he said of the couple, who was from southern California. But, he added, their actions may have doomed the small animal. Pearson and Mate said the increasing population of marine mammals and the growing large number of visitors to the beach each spring and summer leads to an increasing number of interactions between people and marine mammals.

"Every year we get these calls," said Pearson, the OSP sergeant. "We have seal pups that end up in bathtubs in motels. We try to post notices, to educate people, but every year we end up with a few."

Mate said the few young animals left on the beach are physically unready to enter the ocean, and their normal behavior looks like signs of trauma to the untrained observer.

"Their breathing is naturally uneven, they have nasal discharge, their eyes weep, and they make pathetic little bleeping sounds," he said. "That and those big eyes, it's a magic combination."

Whatever you do, leave the animal alone, both Mate and Pearson said.

If people are harassing it, leave it alone and call the state police, they said. If a dog or other animal is bothering it, leave it alone and call the police. The OSP can be reached by calling 1-800-452-7888.

In some cases, a network of volunteers will observe a "stranded" pup to make sure its mother

But in no case should you ever step in yourself and try to help. It won't help the animals and it might earn you a citation.