Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Sea Lion Rescue
AMBI: OCEAN BEACH
It was a San Francisco resident named Theresa who first spotted the young sea lion lying on Ocean Beach.
THERESA: HOW COULD YOU TELL SOMETHING WAS WRONG? He looked sad. He just looked sick. I hope he gets better..
She was right. When Kat Rudd, a volunteer with the Marine Mammal Center, arrives to take a look, she can tell instantly that the sea lion is not well.
RUDD: He?s not severely emaciated, but he?s moderately underweight. He was kind of sucking on the sand, which is an indication of him being dehydrated. So at this point, it?s a matter of getting him to the facility and they?ll run blood work.
AMBI (ocean, faint voices) ?Push! Push!? OR ?So if you can keep your board there?? (continues under track )
Rudd and a couple volunteers grab some chest-high wooden shields and a net from their truck. Holding the shields in front of them - sea lions do bite - they corral the animal into a plastic carrier.
AMBI/RUDD: He is secure!
It?s a lot easier than it should be.
RUDD We would not pick these animals up if they were at full strength [CUT: SO THERE?S NO, I MEAN]. These nets would break apart if it was an anima that?s in good shape. I mean he is really not feeling good.
In fact, this is a very sick sea lion. A few days after its rescue, the animal is euthanized, diagnosed with an acute case of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that has likely wiped out his kidneys.
AMBI: BARKING AT MMC
Back at the Marine Mammal Center, perched high above Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands, veterinarian Michelle Blascow is making the rounds. Different seasons bring different marine mammals, but this time of year, the center?s concrete yards and plastic pools are filled with sea lions. Blascow says she?s seeing a lot of leptosperosis these days.
BLASCOW We seem to have a large outbreak every four years. The last one was in 2004, and it was over 300 animals. This year we?re at 90 cases, so we?re expecting to get a lot.
The Center treats sea lions with all kinds of problems - everything from cancer to ingested fishing nets and hooks. But leptospirosis is the most mysterious. Scientists don?t know why the disease hits in cycles, nor are they sure how the animals pick it up in the first place.
BLASCOW It?s actually a fresh water organism, which is interesting because these guys live in the ocean. But there?s a possibility that they?re drinking water on rookeries where the drinking water is stagnant.
Humans and dogs can get leptospirosis too - either from infected drinking water, or coming in contact with the urine or blood of an infected animal. Here at the Center, vets can save about half the cases with a dose of antibiotics and lots of fluids.
But even with the leptosperosis outbreaks, California sea lions by and large are doing just fine. There are about 300,000 of them along the Pacific Coast - quadruple the number from the 1970s, and enough that many commercial fisherman blame sea lions for a decline in salmon and steelhead.
Which raises an interesting question: Why does the center, which will soon complete a brand new $32 million hospital and visitors facility, spend so much on animals that are neither threatened nor endangered? It?s a question Blascow, and others here, get asked a lot.
BLASCOW The populations of the animals we see for the most part are stable, but we do deal with some endangered animals, steller sea lion, Guadalupe fur seal? Hawaiian monk seal.
And when scientists at the Marine Mammal Center, or anywhere else for that matter, treat a threatened or endangered animal, they don?t want to be taking chances.
BLASCOW: Everything we learn from animals we do treat, we can help to help us treat the endangered animals. And you don?t want to do a lot of experimenting on endangered animals, cause every one that dies is important.
Finally, says Blascow, these animals are the canaries in the oceanic coal mine. If conditions in the Pacific start to threaten marine mammals, scientists here will be some of the first to notice.
And then there?s the reward of simply healing a sick animal.
AMBI: Fitzgerald Beach, ocean waves
After the rescue on Ocean Beach, Kat Rudd and other volunteers head down to Fitzgerald Beach, in San Mateo County, and back one of the trucks up onto the beach.
AMBI: truck wheels on gravel
In the back are three sea lions, all of them recovered from bouts of leptospirosis and ready to head back into the ocean.
AMBI: RATTLING CAGE, OCEAN
As a male sea lion named Xieman rattles the bars of his cage, the Center?s Kat Rudd tells her volunteers to open the latches.
AMBI push the button Dominic, watch it? Here they go!
Without so much as a backward glance, the three sea lions clamber down the rocks and plunge into the ocean. Immediately they begin to roll and play. A small crowd has gathered nearby and they?re thrilled.
CROWD AMBI: ?Oh look at them! Oh they?re swimming! Awesome!? laughter?(continue under)
For Rudd, this is the most satisfying sight of all.
RUDD This is the big reward from all the time and the effort and the commitment of getting these guys off the beach. They are the sentinels of the ocean and it lets us know what?s going on, and that directly affects us.
The Marine Mammal Center?s new hospital and visitor center is scheduled to open to the public in June, 2009.
AMBI/RUDD: Let?s start loading back up!
For Quest, I?m Amy Standen, KQED Radio News.