Cara Santa Maria: Here at the California Wildlife Center, volunteers and staffers work around the clock to rescue, rehabilitate, and release sick, orphaned or injured native wildlife in Southern California.
When we stopped by, workers were busy feeding baby birds, x-raying a crow, and entertaining this rare albino raven found in Culver City.
Cara Santa Maria: So it's all different kinds of animals out here?
Victoria Harris: Right, all different.
Cara Santa Maria: Birds, mammals.
Victoria Harris: Right. We have possums, squirrels, a lot of aviaries.
Cara Santa Maria: This hawk which has been shot is where in his rehabilitation?
Victoria Harris: Pretty close, I'd say two weeks. We usually get close to 100 hawks a year.
Cara Santa Maria: Wow! Mostly injured?
Victoria Harris: Injured, hit by a car, some orphans, shot…It’s really kind of sad.
Cara Santa Maria: It’s very sad. So almost everything you deal with here at the center has to do with human intervention in some way.
Victoria Harris: Almost everything. Yep. We're just gonna take quick peak at a bobcat. He’s probably going to hiss at us but that's good. At that size they could kill a baby deer.
Cara Santa Maria: He does not like us, which is a good sign.
Victoria Harris: It's a good sign, yea, we're gonna go away, don't want to stress him any further.
Cara Santa Maria: This year the Wildlife center added a new kind of animal to its patient roster: The elephant seal. And building a suitable enclosure was no easy feat.
Victoria Harris: Primarily it was having the deep pool. And because we can't impact the land - the state park land that we're on - we had to do a raised platform and you know, follow all of the specifications that are needed to be in compliance with the law for the elephant seal enclosure. So now they get to dive deep. They get to get fish. They get an idea of what it's like when we take them out to the Channel Islands or off the coast here in Malibu.
Cara Santa Maria: Over the last year, 35 elephant seal pups have been rescued, including these two – nicknamed Ellen and Violet. To Marine Mammal Rehab Manager Mike Remski, they showed clear signs of malnourishment.
Mike Remski: When these animals were stranded and we picked them up, they were about half of the weight we would like to see them at. They came in at about 75 pounds and they should've been about 150. There were a couple of times we didn't think they were gonna make it. They just came in really, really bad off. Very skinny, very underweight, dehydrated, malnourished.
Cara Santa Maria: If I’m on the beach and I see a stranded seal or sea lion, what should I do or not do?
Mike Remski: Well the main thing is to not to approach the animal or touch the animal. Alert somebody. A lifeguard, a police officer, or call us and we will send somebody out immediately to check the animal and see if it needs to be rehabilitated or not. It may just be out resting, or there could be a good chance that the animal is actually sick or injured.
Cara Santa Maria: When a seal is stranded on the beach, what reason would it have for being stranded?
Mike Remski: Well, when these elephant seals are stranded on the beach, they almost always come in for the same reason and it's something we call failure to thrive. And all that basically means is that once this animal weaned from its mother, it was unable to fend for itself.
They have a lot of parasites. Sometimes there's fishing injuries. I've seen a couple of shark attacks. There's natural things like that, but it's overwhelmingly a malnourishment issue for elephant seal pups.
Cara Santa Maria: So when they first come in, they're babies.
Mike Remski: Exactly.
Cara Santa Maria: And these babies don't yet know how to eat on their own yet, do they?
Mike Remski: Some of them don't. At this age they should be able to eat on their own but a lot of them have probably never seen a fish before. All they've had is milk so they wouldn't know what to do with a fish right off the bat. We have to get them to that stage.
Cara Santa Maria: And depending on the individual animal, that can be a difficult process. But once the pups are finally able to fish by themselves, they're ready to go back to the wild. Weighing in at nearly 200 pounds each, Ellen and Violet have mastered this important survival skill.
Mike Remski: We need to make sure that they’re going to survive and thrive on their own. And they need to be off of all medications. And they need to have an exam by the veterinarian to make sure the bloodwork is good and the animal seems to be healthy, as best as we can tell.
Cara Santa Maria: Today is the big day. After an arduous three months of rehabilitation, Ellen and Violet are finally ready to be released. Packed up early in the morning, the two seal pups were loaded into the van and transported 25 miles to the Pacific Ocean. It can take several hours to coax a newly released seal pup into the sea.
But Violet saw her chance, and rushed straight into the water, protected by wooden boards the handlers use to ease her journey.
Ellen was a bit more hesitant but eventually found the way. The whole release took only around six minutes.
Mike Remski: They have in their favor the experience of knowing what a fish is, knowing how to eat it, and having a nice thick blubber layer on them so they can survive probably a couple of months without food and still be OK. Sometimes they turn around and want to go to people for food or for companionship but that didn't happen. So, it went well.
Victoria Harris: Fabulous release. Even with these waves, it was great. They know what to do.
Cara Santa Maria: Watching these two pups find their way back home into the ocean is especially emotional for Missy Halperin. She and her daughter first spotted Ellen and made the call to the Wildlife Center, leading to her successful rescue.
Cara Santa Maria: So Violet and Ellen they're in the open ocean now. How confident are you that they're gonna thrive?
Jonsie: I'm really confident just because of the way they -- once they got out there, they were gone. These two, I think they'll do great. I don't think we'll ever see them again.
Cara Santa Maria: For “SoCal Connected,” I'm Cara Santa Maria.
After an arduous three months in rehabilitation, two young elephant seals are finally ready to be released back into the ocean by a team at the California Wildlife Center.
Before their release, elephant seals Ellen and Violet were found in highly debilitating and malnourished conditions, weighing 63, and 55 pounds, respectively.
Violet and Ellen are the California Wildlife Center's first elephant seal rescues of the year, but not the first releases of the season.
"We are pleased we made it a little over three months later. They came in really skinny and dehydrated. Thanks to our great vet team and volunteers, pulling together, we made it here and they look like they're going to make it," said Michael Remski, marine mammal rehabilitation manager.
Find out more as reporter Cara Santa Maria explores the issue and greets the latest pair of rescued baby elephant seals.
Featuring Interviews With:
- Victoria Harris, board president
- Michael Remski, marine mammal rehab manager
- Jonsie Ross, marine mammal stranding coordinator