Wednesday 25 April 2018

Seal pups in trouble need to be rescued

Alice would have drowned if she had not been rescued
Alice would have drowned if she had not been rescued

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Wild animals have no owners, and the State does not have the funds to pay for their care. So when they get into difficulties, it's up to the public to work together with local vets to find the best possible way to help them. Most vets are happy to offer first aid free of charge to wild creatures that have been found by the public.

Last Tuesday, I received a call from Seal Rescue Ireland: a baby seal had been found washed up on a Bray beach, wedged between rocks. The seal pup was injured and the tide was coming in: she needed to be rescued urgently. A man walking his dog had come across the seal pup, and had phoned Seal Rescue Ireland looking for help: they were now calling me to go out to assist.

I headed down at once, meeting the man and following him half a mile along the beach to the seal pup. She was tucked away out of sight, hidden between large rocks. The man had been walking his dog on the beach, and hadn't seen her. It was only when his dog had started barking at the rocks that he'd taken a closer look and spotted her. She was only around four weeks of age, still with her downy seal pup fur, and she had a bleeding, painful area on her back. There was no sign of a mother: she must have been abandoned. There was no doubt: she would have drowned in the incoming tide if we hadn't been there to rescue her.

There are two species of seal in Irish waters: the Grey seal and the Common seal (also known as the Harbour seal). They have a similar appearance, but the Grey seal is bigger, and they normally pup between the winter months of October and February. The Common seal gives birth in the summer months.

Baby seals (pups) are vulnerable, fragile creatures, and it's common for them to be washed up on Irish beaches at this time of year. The mortality rate of seal pups is 40% so undoubtedly if these seal pups were not rescued, they would die. Some might call this "nature", but they're sentient, intelligent creatures, so it's appropriate to rescue them when possible, and to care for them as best as can be done. The big question is: what should be done for them once they've been picked up from the beach? Caring for seal pups is a speciality, requiring knowledge, skills and experience. The general public and local vets are not equipped to deal with them.

The good news is that for several decades, some individuals have dedicated their time and resources to rehabilitating seal pups. For many years, the Irish Seal Sanctuary was run in North Dublin by former zoo keeper, Brendan Price. In the last decade, the organisations behind seal rescue have changed, and now Seal Rescue Ireland is the most active. This is a registered charity, with one employee and a wide network of volunteers. It was originally based in Dingle, moving to Courtown in County Wexford two years ago.

Seal Rescue Ireland is a not-for-profit charity that works around the clock, 365 days a year. A team of eighteen hard working resident volunteer interns from around the world cares for Grey and Common Seals that have been rescued from Irish beaches and transported to the rescue centre. Around 60-80 seal pups are cared for every year: the team bring the pups back to full health and then return them to the wild. They're usually released back into the sea from the beach where they were found.

Seal Rescue Ireland relies entirely on public donations to fund their work. The Courtown facility is more than just a rescue centre: it's set up as an educational resource that welcomes the visiting public, with a gift shop, bathrooms and education area. It's open daily for visitors to see the rehabilitation work first hand and meet the seals in care. The interns provide guided tours of the facility, explaining the rehabilitation process, and telling the stories about each individual animal. Right now, there are 45 seal pups in residence.

As well as the resident interns, Seal Rescue Ireland depends on members of the public around Ireland to act as an active network of volunteers to help injured and sick seals. Anyone with an interest in this work can go on a course at the Courtown centre to learn how to pick seals up and handle them safely. Seals are wild animals and it's natural for them to try to defend themselves from humans. Even young seals can give a nasty bite if not handled carefully. It's important to realise that not every washed-up seal pup needs to be rescued: sometimes volunteers are asked to keep an eye on a pup, to make sure that its mother is still around.

Seal Rescue Ireland has trained volunteers on the phone line, so that the network of helpers on the ground can be kept advised on how best to proceed. Simple methods- like sending Whatsapp images of seals that have been found - make it easier to share information.

The seal that I helped to rescue was named Alice. She's around four weeks old, and she has a nasty cut on her right shoulder. She was badly dehydrated when she was found, although oral rehydration fluids were given to her at once, so that was soon remedied. She's now been cared for in Courtown and should be ready for release in a few months.

Drogheda Independent