Record Number of Cal Sea Lions Need Help, SoCalWild, Feb. 2013

They have loose, rolling skin and their ribs show through their tiny brown bodies. There is a glaze in their large round eyes. When they flop or lay down on the cement dry areas, it’s not the normal lounging that healthy California sea lions typically do for hours on end.  Even their whiskers seem droopy. These pups are sick.

What’s more is there are a record number of sick pups this year. The biggest number in 20 years. Officials at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro say that the number of emaciated and dehydrated young sea lions is at the highest it’s recorded for 20 years for this time of year. Usually in January, the center receives maybe 11 or so strandings but so far, the center has admitted more than 60…and counting. (UPDATE: As of Feb. 11, 2013 the center has received more than 100 pups.)

The Marine Mammal Care Center has never seen this many sick Cal seal lions at this time of year. (photo: Brenda Rees)The Marine Mammal Care Center has never seen this many sick Cal seal lions at this time of year. (photo: Brenda Rees)

The staff, including an extensive volunteer organization, has been working overtime to care for and fatten up these normally active pinnipeds so they can return to the ocean. But the center’s enclosures are getting full and every day it seems, another thin and confused sea lion is brought in.

“We estimate that most of these pups are about 8 months old,” says David Bard, director of operations. “We really aren’t sure why we are seeing so many now. Usually January is a relatively quiet time for us. This has taken us all by surprise.”

Indeed, officials gave the go-ahead to start an extensive revamping of the center’s drainage system last month considering January is “downtime.” That’s all been put on hold since staff and volunteers are working round the clock to assess, treat and care for the skinny pups.

There are many theories as to what is causing so many malnourished young sea lions, but overall, scientists are stumped.

“We currently do not know the reasons for the poor condition of California sea lion pups,” says Sharon Melin, research biologist for NOAA currently based in Seattle, WA.

Scientists are stumped as to what is making so many Cal sea lion pups sick. (Photo: Brenda Rees)Scientists are stumped as to what is making so many Cal sea lion pups sick. (Photo: Brenda Rees)

It could be a few factors or a combination. “Starving pups at this time of year usually means that the mothers are having trouble finding enough food to support the energetic cost of lactation,” says Melin. “It could also mean that mothers are dying from disease…but we do not have evidence that suggests this is occurring.”

Melin and fellow scientists are currently sampling dead and live pups to see if there are anything unusual that would explain low weights and the poor condition of the pups.

Another factor maybe the warmer-than-normal sea surface temperature that took place in Southern California in the fall of 2012. Warm temps could have relocated sea lion prey so mama sea lions were struggling to find food and produce milk. “At this time of year (February), most pups are not weaned completely and are still largely dependent on their mothers for nutrition,” she says.

Back at the noisy and bustling care center, healthier pups (ones who have been at the center the longest) are frolicking in a pool, barking and snapping at one another in true sea lion form. Others are draped protectively over their buddies as they sprawl on the sidelines. This wildly active scene is a sharp contrast to the nearby weak pups that still look, for lack of a better word, shell-shocked.

These pups will soon be released back into the ocean. (Photo: Brenda Rees)These pups will soon be released back into the ocean. (Photo: Brenda Rees)











“[The sick pups]seem to be responding to the food and the medication,” says Dr. Lauren Palmer, on-staff vet, who along with Bard and the volunteers are hopeful they can weather the storm of sick pups. “So far, we have lost very few of them. That is encouraging.”

Indeed, Bard explains that the mandate of the Marine Mammal Care Center is to accept any sick or injured marine mammal found in the boundaries of Los Angeles County.  “We are prepping in the back of our heads for the ‘worst case scenario’ if this condition still persists,” he says. “We’re taking it day by day.”

As a non-profit, the Marine Mammal Care Center relies on public donations for  financial support. They also have a wish list of items that can be dropped off for use at the facility. Household bleach, safflower oil with vitamin E, bottled water and other items listed here are greatly appreciated.

The center is also opened for tours and school visits. Call to schedule a tour or to get more information.

Go on. The water is fine. (Photo: Brenda Rees)Go on. The water is fine. (Photo: Brenda Rees)

Burbank Mountain Lions…One Year Later, SoCalWild, Jan. 2013

They were once malnourished, fearful and full of parasites, but now these former SoCal two mountain lion cubs have grown into strapping young cats ready for the world ahead of them, a world that doesn’t involved being poked at with sticks by strangers on the streets of Burbank.

Found in December of 2011 under a parked car in Burbank (where residents were thrusting broomsticks at them to shoo them away), this feline duo “was rescued just in the nick of time,” says curator Katelyn Cottle of Zoo to You, a conservation educational facility in Paso Robles.

The young cats were first brought to the California Wildlife Center in Calabasas for medical care and evaluation before they were transported to Zoo to You. Wildlife experts agreed that such young cats were not good candidates to be released back into the wild because they haven’t been properly trained to hunt and they’ve been overexposed to human contact. Where was their mother? Why were they alone? Hard to say…

Olive and her brother Leno were rescued in the "nick of time." Photo couresty of the California Wildlife Center.Olive and her brother Leno were rescued in the “nick of time.” Photo couresty of the California Wildlife Center.

The 3-month old cubs were only 9 and 11 pounds when they arrived at the facility a little more than a year ago. Now, they are packing in between 75 -80 pounds, a more adequate weight for carnivorous cats.

Olve -- in between cub and cat. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.Olive — in between cub and cat. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.

They were first named Olive and Magnolia (Burbank streets, dontcah know) until it was discovered that Magnolia was a boy.  Now known as Olive and Leno (yes, after Jay Leno whose Tonight Show tapes in beautiful downtown Burbank), the not-so-cubby cats spend a good chunk of their days working with trainers and resolving trust issues.  It’s hoped the duo will become traveling educational ambassadors, taking the mantel from the facilities’ two other “elderly” cougars that are 15 years old.

Training is “a long process and with large cats, we usually start when they are only a few days or weeks old,” explains Cottle. “With these cubs being three months old, we are working through a lot of fears they have – fear of being killed, being eaten, starving. These two still have that ‘fight’ in them, but we are making very good progress.”

Olive growing up. "What? I'm not in Burbank anymore?" Photo courtesy of Zoo to You.Olive growing up. “What? I’m not in Burbank anymore?” Photo courtesy of Zoo to You.

Consider the plight of the three trainers who work with the cats – everything is positive reinforcement which means praising and acknowledging good behavior and totally ignoring bad behavior. “So when the cats, claw or bite you, you just have to ignore it. You can’t react when they do that,” says Cottle. “That can be really hard to do when they are in attack mode.” Soon, the cats will realize they aren’t “getting a rise” out of the human and decide to do something else…something that may get them a treat or other goodies.

Training Olive. Always positive reinforcement. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.Training Olive. Always positive reinforcement. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.

Scientists have DNAed the duo’s mother and father as part of a small contingency of mountain lions that live in and around the Verdugo Mountains near Burbank.  Camera traps in that area snap and record wildlife; researchers were excited about a video recorded only a few weeks before the cubs were discovered in Burbank. They thought the images were of the brother sister pair.

But, it turns out, that video captured yet but another pair of cubs foraging the hillsides. “Scientists were just blown away by that,” says Cottle. “It just goes to show that wildlife is right here in our own backyard.”

Olive and Leno’s journey is the subject of a documentary crew which is using the cat’s story to illustrate the bigger picture of mountain lions living in and around dense urban areas, like Los Angeles.  (See sidebar on David Elkins and Elkins Eye Visuals.)

The Department of Fish and Game (DFG) estimates that there are between 4,000 – 6,000 mountain lions in California; they are not endangered, but they’re considered a “specially protected species” and cannot be hunted.

Mountain lions are the ultimate boogie-man of urban predators. They are painted as the vicious creatures that stalk the shadows for hikers on the trail, children in playgrounds, old people at the bus stop, or pampered pets in backyards.

However, a DFG record of mountain lion attacks in the state of California reveals that since 1890, only seven people were killed by mountain lions and 16 nonfatal incidents were reported. Yes, you are more likely to hit by lightning twice then be attacked by a mountain lion.

Mountain lions are not the blood-hungry cat of our collective human nightmare; in truth they are solitary hunters, elusive and shy. They don’t hang out in prides and only meet up with others of their kind for mating. They want to be left alone and far away from humans as possible.

Still urban and rural folk need constant reminders that the big cat is not their enemy. The folks at Zoo to You are sure these two mountain lions – which have garnered a lot of public sympathy and local fame – offer a unique chance for conservation education.  Anyone can see the pair when they visit the center which is only a few hours away from the Los Angeles area.

Having a pair of wild cats with a dramatic backstory may soften the hardest of hearts and allow their real identity of the mountain lion to shine through the fear.

Cottle says that Zoo 2 You often brings animals to the Tonight Show to interact with Jay Leno.  It would be the perfect ending to the Hollywood story if Olive and Leno could travel back to Burbank, meet their namesake and help the cause of mountain lions everywhere. “It would be just the best,” she says. “We would love to see that happen. Really. It would be just the best.”

 Olive today. Not a scrawny cub anymore. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.Olive today. Not a scrawny cub anymore. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.