A Labor of Sea Lion Love

Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch Photography

"We see the problem," my friend Steve Munch says to me, "but we don't know how to help."

Steve and I are pulled off alongside the 101 freeway north of Santa Barbara. This is not the 101 freeway most Southern Californians know. Here the wind runs down from blue mountains, across brown grass ranch land, and out to sea. It is a wide sky world, pocked here and there with wood barns and sinuous lines of fencing.

We are here to visit Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, a grand name for a small organization that does a grand amount of work. My friend Steve first encountered CIMWI about three weeks earlier when he walked out of his photo studio in Ventura Harbor and saw a frail form tucked among the rocks. The sea lion pup was emaciated and dying.

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Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch Photography

Steve has spent his life around the ocean. He specializes in photographing marine animals. It is not about the money. It is about the beauty. The pup was lucky it was Steve who saw her. Plenty of others would have turned away. Steve called CIMWI's rescue hotline (805-567-1505). He got a recording -- where is the sea lion? What does it look like? -- and left a message. Someone called back within 20 minutes. A volunteer drove up to Ventura from Newbury Park, leaving work. Steve was mightily impressed.

"This guy left his work early," says Steve. "He was driving a really nice car, like an Audi. He gets the sea lion into this small dog kennel, loads it into his car and drives all the way up to Gaviota. I doubt he got much else done that day."

The two of us sit quietly by the side of the road considering this kind of commitment.

I have seen my share of sick sea lions over the years. I have not always done the right thing.

I turn to Steve.

"What made you call?"

My friend Steve is something of a survivor himself. During a stint as a commercial fisherman he once sank off Santa Cruz Island and spent a cold night on the island in nothing but his skivvies.

"It deserved a chance," says Steve.

Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch Photography

When Ruth and Sam Dover come down and unlock the chain link gate with the "No Trespassing" sign we drive in.

As you read this, starving sea lion pups are washing up on Southern California beaches in record numbers; according to press reports, at a rate five times the norm. Over 1,200 emaciated sea lion pups have been found stranded on beaches from Santa Barbara to San Diego since the beginning of the year. These are just numbers until you see one of these pups. It has gotten so bad the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared an "unusual mortality event." Perhaps such dull, antiseptic phraseology is man's way of making things easier. It is neither dull nor antiseptic to see a sea lion pup that should weigh 65 pounds but weighs maybe 20 pounds. Like a pelt on a coat hanger.

Scientists are troubled.

"Usually we know the problem," Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, told a reporter. "In the past we knew what was coming. When we saw the effect, we knew what it was caused by. What's different about this incident is we don't have any of that."

What's strange is many of the sickly pups, roughly 6 to 8 months old, should still be with their mothers. Biologists like Melin have their theories. Perhaps the pups were left behind by mothers who had to venture further out to sea to forage for food. Maybe the mothers are undernourished themselves and their milk doesn't have enough nutrients for their pups. It is also true that many of the sea lion pups have ailments beyond malnutrition. Researchers are also looking at pollution, disease outbreak, and algae blooms.

Sam Dover's assessment is briefer.

"Toward the end of December we noticed the numbers picking up," he says. "And they just didn't stop."

Sam Dover is a burly, straightforward man with a wealth of experience as a veterinarian. He's been working with marine mammals since 1984 and has worked, or currently works, for organizations ranging from Sea World to the Santa Barbara Zoo.

"Every day of my life I'm working on animals," says Sam.

It's not a job with an end in sight. Ruth and Sam started CIMWI because they saw the need. They turned on their hotlines in June 2006 and business has been hopping ever since.

"Basically we do rescue, rehabilitation, and research," says Sam. "The principal cause is strandings and it's a never ending job."

It is very much a job in progress. The property that now houses CIMWI as it continues to unfold was formerly a school. The main building was built in 1928. It was abandoned in 1985, although not entirely. For a long time a Vietnam vet called the building home and he spent large parts of that time writing on the walls. The portions of the building that Sam and Ruth have not yet rehabbed look like something out of "The Shining." I can't tell you where CIMWI is. Ruth and Sam do not want drop in visitors yet. If you want to know, you're going to have to volunteer.

In snatched moments between sea lion rehab, Ruth, Sam, and a dedicated cadre of volunteers have worked nothing short of a miracle. There is already a shining surgery treatment area with surgery tables and an anesthesia oxygen system. Filing cabinets from defunct hospitals brim with records. Shelves hold tidily arranged medicines. Some of the veterinary equipment is new, but most of it is cobbled together from what Sam has collected over the years.

But there's still a long way to go.

Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch Photography

Walking down an open air hallway Sam consults his phone.

"One of our volunteers," he says. "She's responding to a small sea lion at Faria Beach that's possibly injured. She wants to know if she can charge the sea lion for the gas money."

To do this job you must have a sense of humor. And lots of gas money. And money for utilities and fish. Lots of money for fish.

We stand outside the door of the room where the sea lions are housed. The sound of feeble coughs drifts out the door, along with a smell that, as a favor to you, I will not describe.

"Our patients," smiles Ruth, and we step inside.

The room where the sea lion pups are kept is spartan (a concrete floor with maybe a half dozen pens ringing the perimeter), cool and loud with the sounds of slapping, wheezing, croaking, belching, and sporadic flatulence. If you close your eyes you could be at a very rude and fatty family gathering.

Ruth Dover possesses a ready smile and an efficient manner.

"Okay," she says. "These guys are cranky. Let's get them fed." She turns to me. "Everyone wears gloves. That means you. We're putting you to work."

From inside the pens the pups regard us doe-eyed and open-faced as children, their heads cocked slightly for good sentimental measure. Their inky eyes look like a plea. This is why, without fail, good Samaritans up and down our coast often experience a rude surprise.

"They really can be nasty," says Ruth. "They've got really sharp teeth."

Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch Photography

For precisely this reason I quickly volunteer for feeding duty, which consists of simply reaching through the cage and dangling a herring over the pup's thrown back head, so that you may drop it cleanly, and safely, down their throat. Old Italian men dine in much the same manner.

Because I offer my services so readily, my friend Steve, too bad for him, is enlisted for the snaring and tagging, although Sam and volunteers Wynter Dawson and Glenn Letterman also lend a hand. Four grown adults for a single pup might seem like overkill, until you see a pup snared and pulled from the cage. It is Steve's job to hold the pup still while Sam tags it. In day to day life Steve is unflappable and light-hearted. Now, standing outside the cage, he is oddly focused and I can see beads of sweet on his forehead.

Snared, the pup exits its cage with a frenzied whopping, slapping, squirming, and lunging, a bit like an angry mixed martial artist, only few martial artists will bite down on your foot. Along with rubber gloves Steve also wears rubber boots. The pups are tagged so that researchers can see where they go and also know if they've stranded before.

Number one comes out fighting. It bites someone's boot and then in a blink-quick motion transfers its jaws to the catch pole. This is wonderful, and not just because Steve looks pale.

"This is a sign of an animal that's ready to go back into the wild," smiles Sam.

Much to my dismay, Steve performs the pinning with aplomb and Sam applies the tag.

The pup is returned to its cage. Now that he's out of immediate danger, to my eye Steve looks a trifle too self-satisfied.

He raises an eyebrow.

"Not bad," he says. "But they're a lot stronger than I thought."

The pups are given numbers (Steve's number 13 came in on January 13) instead of names for a simple reason.

"We don't want to call them by pet names," says Ruth. "They're wild animals. And it helps you to not get attached. But when they're little..."

If Steve hadn't called on January 13, number 13 would have died. She was starving. When she exited the Audi she weighed 23 pounds and had bronchial issues to boot. Traditionally thirteen is not a lucky number, but number thirteen will recover and be released back into the wild.

But this is not the end of the day for Ruth and Sam Dover. CIMWI has hard-working, right-hearted volunteers like Wynter and Glenn, but in all honesty Ruth and Sam Dover are CIMWI. They've built the place up from worse than scratch. They've had some backs and donors pitch in, but it's still pretty much their sweat and money that keeps the place going.

"We're spending our retirement," says Ruth, "but it's a labor of love."

Before Steve and I go, Sam shows me architectural renderings complete with touch tanks, an outdoor amphitheater, and educational classrooms. There's even a pizza oven.

Ruth smiles. "Hey, if we're going to be here full time..."

The Dovers have big plans.

"We want it to truly be an institute," says Sam. "Yes, we dream big. I learned a long time ago if you set your sights low, you get there. The end goal is to have a working facility that will go on without us."

The Dovers see the problem and they do know how to help.

After we leave Steve turns to me and says, "I look at those pups and I know they have a fighting chance because somebody cared."

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