Shedd trainer Kurt Heizmann was cheered by the snuggly pileups of recovering sea lion pups, each with identifying swooshes of color on its head, as he assisted at the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute. These animals were among those that were going to make it, and he had helped give them that second chance.

CIMWI (SIM-wee) is the federally authorized responder to marine mammal strandings along 153 miles of Southern California coastline. The not-for-profit group, based in Santa Barbara County, has taken in record numbers of starving sea lion pups, along with stranded adults and seals, in the last four of its 10 years of rapid-response rescue and rehabilitation work. In the first two months of 2016, staff members admitted 89 pups—four times as many animals as they rescued in all of 2011.

With the number of pup strandings showing no signs of slowing, Ruth Dover, who with her veterinarian husband, Sam, founded the all-volunteer rescue operation, asked Shedd for help.

Soon Kurt, our assistant supervisor of sea lions and birds of prey, was on a California-bound flight. Here’s his account of his two weeks at CIMWI.

I have worked with California sea lions for the entire seven years that I’ve been at Shedd. I’ve also helped before with rehabilitation of sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals. So I was able to jump right in at CIMWI. The roughly 100 volunteers that staff CIMWI are split between rescue and rehabilitation responsibilities. I took part in both efforts, but I worked primarily in rehab.

I arrived at CIMWI’s historic-schoolhouse-turned-clinic each morning around 9 to start food preparation for the patients, and I’d leave between 4:30 and 6, depending on the volume of animal care that we needed to do.

My day began with a quick check-up on each patient. Then I helped with fish preparation: cutting it up for those animals that were not yet eating whole fish, preparing medications and injecting the fish with dextrose to give the emaciated pups extra sugar. Then I joined the rehab team—four to 10 volunteers on any given day—to do rounds on the four indoor pens.

One pen was reserved for new arrivals and animals that had not started eating. The other three were for pups that were eating on their own. We observed each of the 20 or so animals, looking at their responsiveness and behavior and checking fecals for signs of illness or parasites. Then we went to the large outdoor pens, which had the healthiest patients. We fed the pups and cleaned the pens, then moved back to the indoor pens and did the same.

While the pups outdoors were fed as a group so that they could build their competition skills, the indoor pups were fed individually. We made sure they received the medicine- and dextrose-injected fish first, then gave them the rest of their base diet. 

Some animals had stopped taking food because they suffered a glucose crash, a symptom of “refeeding syndrome.” In the wild, these pups were starving, and as they started to eat again, it took a while for their bodies to relearn how to process food. When they are brought to CIMWI, they are started on a light diet that’s gradually increased. Many, however, still crash. If this happened, we quickly tested their blood glucose levels and administered subcutaneous dextrose and other fluids.

Almost all of the animals coming in this year are emaciated sea lion pups, ranging between 7 and 9 months old. They are past the weaning age, so they should have been feeding just fine on their own. Biologists suspect significantly warmer water temperatures from El Niño are sending prey fishes farther offshore to cooler areas, leaving the pups without enough to eat. El Niño is further aggravating an ongoing phenomenon, the starvation deaths of thousands of sea lions and seals, called an unusual mortality event.

Rescue
Every day CIMWI’s hotline receives 30 to 50 calls about strandings. Starving pups are showing up on beaches, boat docks and roads, and in residential areas. The rescue volunteers assess as many animals as they can and confer with Ruth Dover and manager Jen Levine on each case to determine if rescue is needed. The largest number of animals admitted in a single day while I was there was eight, although three or four was more typical. These pups were often very, very sick, and many passed away within hours or days. Between the animals that responded to treatment and those that didn’t, CIMWI’s patient population hovered around 40.

On top of my day-to-day duties, I joined the volunteer lead of the day to help with the intake exams on new patients. An exam began with an overall assessment of the pup. We took several measurements, including weight, body length, axillary, or chest, girth and umbilical girth. We looked at its teeth, gums and eyes, listened to its lungs and carefully examined its skin and fur. On several occasions we found oil in pups’ fur, lice, abscesses, cloudy eyes and pale gums—signs of how debilitated these animals are. 

Each new arrival received a battery of medications. Electrolytes and dextrose were given subcutaneously. If the pup had lice, it also got an antiparasite medication. To complete its admission, we used nontoxic crayons to make a unique color pattern on its head, and we shaved shapes corresponding to its intake number into its fur. These identification marks were just for use at CIMWI and were not permanent.

Now the pup was ready for rehab.

 

Rehabilitation
The main goals of rehabilitation are to get the animal healthy, eating and gaining weight so that it can make a successful return to the wild. The first two goals are the toughest. The pups coming in are incredibly sick and malnourished, so they get a regimen of medications and vitamins to fight off any illnesses that they have. They are assist-fed until they are ready to eat on their own. They might be hand-fed (using tongs so that they don’t learn to take food directly from humans) until they can grab fish from a bowl. We were always on the watch for a glucose crash, which in many cases could be fatal.

Pups that continue to eat well and progress are moved to the outdoor pens. At this transition, each one is given a National Marine Fisheries Service numbered flipper tag. If the sea lion strands again, NMFS and any responding rescuer or veterinarian will be able to retrieve its history from this i.d. number.

Once the pups are in the outdoor pens, our main goal is to make sure they put on weight. Most of the pups come in weighing between 20 and 30 pounds—some are literally skin and bone—and the mandatory release weight is a minimum of 44 pounds. To reach the physical and behavioral requirements for release, pups typically stay at the center for eight to 12 weeks. (There’s also a maximum weight—66 pounds—to make sure pups don’t stay so long that they get habituated to people.)

Release
My last day at CIMWI, I got to see the rescue process come full circle when I took part in the release of four rehabilitated sea lion pups. With the animals in large dog carriers, we took a ferry that commutes between Ventura and the Channel Islands, 25 miles off the coast. The carriers were on deck with the passengers, and once we got close to the islands, we opened the deck gate and one by one opened the kennel doors, and these sleek, healthy sea lions looked out and dove in.

Before heading to California, I had mentally prepared myself to see the worst, and I did. I experienced the care that goes into these sick and starving animals, and the grief that comes with seeing so many of them die. Because of this, I had to manage my expectations and know that success was not measured in the percentage of animals that were successfully rehabbed but in the number of animals we were able to give a second chance at life in the wild. And ultimately, that was a great experience.

Kurt Heizmann, marine mammals team

When you give to Shedd’s annual fund, you are pitching in to send experts like Kurt to wherever animals are in urgent need of help.