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Nourishing Wiggly, Wet Orphans

By Elizabeth Ross / July 7, 1992



IMAGINE being in a room full of 12 hungry, wet, wiggly baby seals.

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That's what I did when I visited the New England Aquarium's Animal Care Center in Boston.

The people at the Aquarium take care of stranded marine animals, like seals. They take "pups" (baby seals), who were abandoned by their mothers, and care for them until they are strong. Then they release them back into the wild.

I get my first glimpse of these squirmy little creatures when I peer over the half-door to their nursery at the Aquarium. They have whiskered faces, inquiring eyes, and slippery gray-spotted bellies. As we enter the room, they greet us with soft barking that sound like little whimpers.

As I look around this watery animal nursery, I see seal pups everywhere. Some of them are swimming in a little pool. Others are basking in the sun streaming in from a ceiling window. One of them slides out of the water and wriggles toward me. He looks at me with his big brown eyes and smells my sandals. His long whiskers feel ticklish against my toes.

He and his friends are waiting to be fed by Keith Matassa, an animal-care technician at the Aquarium. Keith works with four other staff people and many volunteers to help feed the seals, keep them healthy, and study their behavior.

These cuddly animals almost look like puppies. Keith says their heads and noses look like cocker spaniel dogs. But they don't have long legs, wagging tails, or furry ears like puppies. Instead, they have back and front flippers to move around in the water and on land. When I bend over to touch my curious new sandal-smelling friend, his skin feels wet, slippery, and a little hairy.

Soon, the excitement will begin: lunch time. It seems that's what these pups have been wanting ever since we arrived. They crowd around Keith and his volunteer assistants.

These seal pups are about four to six weeks old. Normally, they would be nursing their mothers' milk. But since that isn't possible, the Aquarium has created its own special baby-seal milk formula made of heavy cream, cod-liver oil, vitamins, and minerals. It is whipped into what looks like a thin milk shake, and warmed in a microwave oven. The seals are then fed the formula through baby bottles or long plastic tubes. They can gain a lot of weight from this milk shake, about half a pound to one pound a day!

After a few mouthfuls, the bottle-fed seals wear frothy white beards. "Once they get that first spurt of milk, they'll start sucking on the bottle," Keith says.

Some seals refuse to take the bottle, and have to be fed by plastic tubes. That's because they aren't used to being fed by something different from their mother's milk. One assistant holds the seal and slides the tube in his mouth. Another pours the mixture through the outside funnel end of the tube. The seals are not hurt when this is done.

One seal, named Harriet, is getting a little impatient. She is doing a lot of squirming while Keith tries to hold her still. It looks as though she's anxious to go out and play.

Another seal, named Galadriel, is much more cooperative. She seems to be enjoying this early afternoon treat.

I look over at Emmet, who just finished his lunch. He is lying down on his back and looks as happy as can be, lounging in the sun. Seals who have had enough food look like Emmet. "If they're sleeping calmly, we know that they're content," Keith says.

These seals will soon be weaned off the milk formula and taught how to eat solid food. Keith will try to tantalize them by throwing silver-colored fish, called silversides, into their swimming pool. The seals are attracted to their shiny color.

Pretty soon, they learn how to bite and eat the fish. Then the seals will be released back to their native homes on the beaches, rocky coast, and waters off New England.

Most rescued baby seals stay an average of three to four months at the Aquarium. Keith says about half are released back into the wild. Some survive, while others never learn how to live on their own.

The New England Aquarium rescues orphaned seals every spring. People find them abandoned by their mothers on New England coastlines and beaches from Maine to south of Cape Cod. Nobody really knows why baby seals are found alone on beaches. Sometimes, a storm will separate a seal from its mother. In other cases, baby seals will be surrounded by curious people at beaches, which will frighten away a mother seal. "If a mother comes up and sees her seal is surrounded, there's a very good chance she'll abandon

it rather than come back for it," says Keith.

Sometimes people see baby seals that look abandoned but are really not. The mother may simply be away looking for food. That's why the Aquarium has a rule not to pick up healthy-looking baby seals until 24 hours has passed.

If the seal experts decide that an animal has been abandoned, they take it back to the Aquarium's Animal Care Center. The Aquarium also uses two airlines to rescue seals in areas in northern parts of Maine.

When they reach the Animal Care Center, the animals will be tagged and given health checks. The tags are attached on the animal's head with glue (something like a cross between rubber cement and chewing gum) and later fall off naturally.

Seals are not pets and need to be kept in the wild where they belong. When they get older and grow teeth, they can bite. That's why they should not be handled, petted, or fed by people who don't know much about them. The Aquarium has a telephone number for people to call if they spot abandoned baby seals in the New England area. Last year, the Aquarium received 1,500 calls.

`Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.