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Pup's heart-wrenching story spotlights need to understand 'rescues'.

Byline: The Register-Guard

NEWPORT - California sea lion No. 7251 has an adorable, but dangerous, affinity for human beings.

He swam from Crescent City, Calif., to Oregon a few months ago and crossed U.S. Highway 101 in search of sympathetic bipeds with food to spare. He followed children into garages. He wound up inside a Newport living room.

These are all bad things for a sea lion to do. Cute, but potentially deadly.

The pup's story is a rare one, but it shows how problematic it is to interfere with the natural course of wildlife, and why too much human contact can kill a sea animal as surely as wrapping a fish net around its neck, experts say.

The 4-foot Zalophus californianus pup was raised in captivity and had come to rely on humans for its food. But in California, where thousands of pups are "rescued" every year, seals and sea lions are rehabilitated and released back into the ocean, where most can adapt just fine.

Not 7251. He showed up in Oregon on March 24 in the parking lot of a Rockaway restaurant on the east side of Highway 101. Members of the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network caught him and took him to a nearby beach. Oregon's policy is not to rehabilitate such animals, but to release them back into the ocean in a less populated area.

But 7251 returned, this time in a back yard at Nedonna Beach. Again, rescuers captured and released him farther south. Again, the animal came back, this time to a house north of Pacific City. People had taken to petting him, letting their dogs play with him and surely feeding him. 7251's chances of making it in the wild were shot, says Judy Tuttle, curator of mammals at Newport's Oregon Coast Aquarium. The more contact they have with humans, the more helpless they become.

In March, network volunteers moved the pup to the aquarium, which rehabilitates a limited number of animals each year, with feeding, examinations and rest. But this only happens in special circumstances - if it's clear that the problems an animal has were caused by its interaction with humans, for example. Oregon has a policy of not rehabilitating animals unless they are members of endangered species, threatened species or declining species.

California sea lions are enjoying healthy numbers, which is why this pup was repeatedly returned to the beach. By its third stranding, however, it was clear that the animal couldn't live on its own.

"The rule of nature is survival of the fittest," Tuttle said. "He is a long way from being one of the fittest.

"He's one of the stupid ones."

When the pup was transferred to Tuttle's care, it was 20 pounds underweight, its ribs showing through its matted fur, barely alive.

"We thought he wouldn't make it through the night," said Ken Lytwyn, senior marine mammalogist at the aquarium.

As aquarium employees began filling the animal with food, politics entered the picture. This was a rare case, because the sea lion had traveled so far after living in captivity for so long that he instinctively sought out humans. Most sea lions avoid humans.

The special circumstances warranted a tough decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is something like the Supreme Court of marine mammals.

The service gathers input from interested groups, such as the stranding network, the aquarium, California officials and makes the final decision: Should the pup be returned to California, where it would probably starve to death? Should it be euthanized? Or should it be brought into captivity, destined for a lifetime in a zoo?

California rehabilitates many stranded marine mammals because the public puts pressure on officials to do so, Tuttle said, and in some cases, there is more funding for such rescues.

Philosophies on whether this is right depend on whom you ask. Some people want to save them, because they're living creatures and it's hard to cope with simply letting them die, said Tamara McGuire, coordinator of the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. McGuire coordinated the rescue efforts for 7251.

Many scientists, however, argue against disrupting the delicate balance of nature, which claims half of all seal and sea lion pups. Others don't want the animals to have to live in captivity, McGuire said. There is constant debate over such issues in all fields.

"It's very controversial," she said.

Eventually, thanks to some intense lobbying from the stranding network members and the aquarium, sea lion 7251 was rescued, and is headed for the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, where he'll most likely enjoy decades of swimming and training and hand-feeding.

In most cases, however, such a dependence on humans would be a death sentence.

- Winston Ross


Marine mammalogist Hermene Reinhard feeds a rescued juvenile California sea lion at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The animal, which became dependent on hand-feeding from humans, could not be returned to the ocean.
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Title Annotation:Animals
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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