OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Seals on the beach: Leave them alone

04/28/2003

NEWPORT - Tamara McGuire knows why people try to "rescue" baby seals from the beach, even though the action actually endangers them.

"They're adorable," she said.

McGuire is the new coordinator for the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Working out of Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center, she responds to any report of a marine mammal washing up on the Oregon coast, alive or dead, and coordinates volunteers who watch the beaches for such events.

At this time of year, the biggest problem is people trying to rescue seal pups that don't need rescuing, despite their apparent helplessness.

Seals give birth to their pups on Oregon beaches in the spring. At times, the mother seal will give birth to a 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, McGuire said. But if they do, there's a good chance the young animal, cut off from its mother, will die.

Picking the animals up drastically increases the chance that the animal will not survive, she said.

Every year, people pick up pups and try to take them to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center, or the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. It is not uncommon for seal pups to end up in motel bathtubs as well-meaning rescuers try to find someone to save it.

The reality is, there is no facility on the coast that will take the animals. It's actually against state law to harass stranded seal pups, and that includes removing them from the beach for their "protection."

In late March McGuire got a call about a pup that appeared abandoned at Salishan Spit, so she went to investigate. Until then, she said, she never really understood the impulse to try to help the infant seals. When she found it motionless on the beach, she at first assumed it was dead.

"Then it raised its head and looked at me. They're adorable, with those deep brown eyes. And they make a cry to keep in contact with their mother."

She left the newly born pup on the beach under the assumption that the mother was nearby at sea and would continue caring for it.

In another recent incident at Gold Beach, a ranger, going down a trail ran into a visitor coming up the trail with a pup under its arm. He explained the situation and helped the visitor return it to the spot where it was found.

During the next few weeks McGuire expects to begin receiving dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar calls. If visitors to the beach find a stranded seal pup, she said, the best thing for them to do is leave it alone - and make sure other people and dogs keep away from the young animals. There is nothing more to do, and nothing else that legally can be done.

"If you really want to help, if you just can't walk off and leave the animal alone, call the hotline," McGuire said.

The coastal hotline was set up to report live or dead marine mammals, or harassment of marine mammals by people or their pets. The number is 1-800-452-7888.

The Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network also responds to seals, sea lions, dolphins and whales that wash up on the beach, attempting either to care for them or, in the case of dead animals, determining the cause of death. In a recent case, she said, a young gray whale washed ashore north of Newport, a crab pot and length line wrapped around its tail. Such cases are important to document, she said.

The funding for McGuire's position comes from a one-year, renewable federal grant administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, specifically set up for marine mammal protection.