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Over the coming months, as seals and sea lions haul out on beaches and give birth to pups up and down the California coast, the Marine Mammal Center is looking for volunteers to care for a likely onslaught of young animals that need help.
The center is quiet right now, with only about 20 animals currently in its care. Some of those are elephant seal pups, which only spend a month nursing with their mothers in the wild, and sometimes that month is cut short.
"A storm might come in and wash them off the beaches because they're not quite strong enough," said staff veterinarian Cara Field. "Our volunteers feed them, they take care of them, they help us administer medication."
Right now, they need more volunteers. As harbor seals and California sea lions follow the lead of the elephant seals and begin their own "pup season," the Marine Mammal Center could be caring for over a hundred sick and wounded animals in the next 1-2 months.
"They were looking for volunteers, and I got hooked the very first day i showed up for work," recalled volunteer Stan Jensen.
That was 17 years ago. A retired computer engineer, Jensen never thought he'd work with wildlife -- but he keeps coming back. The center provides all the training -- from how to listen for a healthy stomach to the perfect recipe for a fish milkshake. Field confessed she doesn't much care for the strong herring flavor, but says the seals seem to love it.
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At a month old, elephant seals are eating machines, each with a stomach the size of a football -- but they still don't know how to forage for fish. The Marine Mammal Center has to teach them that skill before they can survive on their own.
"They come in and they've been nursing off mothers and they have no concept of swallowing solid food," Jensen said. "It's hard not to jump up and cheer and say, 'I got him to eat a fish!'"
Once they're healthy, the animals are returned to the wild, where it's actually illegal for humans to approach them.
"It's wonderful to admire them from a distance, but when they need help, this is a rare opportunity that people can have to be able to interact with them," Field said.
Training for volunteers is held in mid-February, and requires a six-month commitment to show up for regularly-scheduled shifts at the Marine Mammal Center. Of course, many will commit longer than that. Just ask Field, who was a volunteer herself for seven years.
"It left me a changed and better person," she said.
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