A moment ago, the three harbor seal pups were napping. But footsteps in their pen and the smell of food have roused them from their midday slumbers. It's feeding time at the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center in Crescent City, Calif., and for the seals and sea lions living temporarily at the facility, that means fish.
Remarkably, though, these three youngsters had never tasted this staple of their diet before they arrived at the center. And that's why lunch for them means a lot more than just filling their bellies. It's another step in their education as they learn to eat like seals.
The NMMC — located in the city's Beachfront Park, off Front Street — provides food, shelter and medical care for ill, injured and distressed marine mammals. Approximately 60 animals a year are admitted to the facility, staying an average of one to two months.
The patients rehab outdoors in Spartan but spotless concrete pens, each furnished with a small, above-ground pool. Some are nursing wounds, suffered on land (aggressive dogs) or in the water (boat propellers). Others were found dehydrated and sick. The three pups now sharing a pen were all stranded by their mothers.
According to Robyn Walker, executive director of the center, this happens quite often.
Mother seals will typically leave their young on the beach for an hour or two while they feed in the ocean. People might come upon the helpless-looking creatures and get too close, either out of curiosity or compassion. If the mother happens to be observing the scene, she will not return to her young.
"Human interference is a big problem," Walker says, adding that the center will send out volunteers to watch the youngsters from a distance. Once it's determined that the mother definitely isn't coming back, the animals are brought to the center so they won't starve.
"We start them on a milk-based formula through a tube," Walker explains. Once the animals are old enough for solid food, it's time to introduce them to fish.
At the center, they receive regular servings, but the food doesn't come easy.
On the day I visited, I watched a volunteer wiggle smelts under the youngsters' noses, attempting to coax them into their pool. They don't get the prize until they have shimmied up the ramp on their bellies and plunged into the briny water.
This way, hopefully, they will associate eating with being in water, not with being served a hand-out. The center will not release young seals, Walker says, until they are "free-feeding."
"If we can toss the fish into the pool and walk away, knowing the seals will go in after it, then it's time for them to be released," she notes.
Visitors are welcome to observe the animals from behind fences, preferably while keeping their voices down. As mealtime continues, the volunteer responds to questions from onlookers with nods and a smile. Silence is a virtue when dealing with the patients.
"Our volunteers are really good at doing their jobs, and not talking to the animals like they would talk to their dogs," Walker says.
There always is the possibility that seals and sea lions, who are social by nature, will grow too fond of human company.
Take Ditka, for example, a California sea lion yearling who occupies the pen behind the pups'. He came to the center underweight at 78 pounds because he had become too dependent upon humans for food.
Released when he reached a robust 125 pounds, he quickly reverted to his old ways.
"We found him hanging out at the dock with the fishermen," says Walker, adding that animals who become "too habituated" to people put themselves and the public in danger.
So Ditka is back at the center, while a future — possibly in the Navy as a service animal — can be arranged for him.
Ultimately, the patients at the facility are not there to be pampered and treated like star attractions in an eye-grabbing exhibit, as at a zoo or an aquarium. Under the guidance of veterinarian and NMMC founder, Dr. Dennis Wood, the staff attends to their basic needs, monitors their progress, and aims to keep them as wild as possible, as they mend, recuperate or learn the ways of their nature.
Their home is the ocean, not this human-built shelter. That's the whole point.
"They're adorable animals," Walker says, "but you keep reminding yourself that the goal is to get them released and not (become) used to humans."
The Northcoast Marine Mammal Center is a private, nonprofit organization, serving Del Norte and Humboldt counties of Northern California. It accepts donations at its Crescent City location or through its website (www.northcoastmmc.org).
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.