Brandy Garcia spent the last three days listening to the cries of a hungry baby.
By Tuesday, the crying had stopped.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Garcia said of a weeks-old harbor seal pup left without a mother just 50 yards from her waterfront home north of Woodard Bay. “It cried and cried all day and night Saturday, all day and night Sunday, into Monday morning. I haven’t slept in two days. Morally and ethically, I feel horrible watching that poor thing starve to death. How can you sleep through something like that?”
Garcia and her two children’s home is directly in front of a haul-out site for mother seals to leave their pups. During birthing season, dozens of seals and their babies use the remains of the former railroad trestle running hundreds of yards out into Henderson Inlet as a place to rest and feed.
Over the past three years, she has watched mothers give birth and teach their young to swim and hunt. “Living here, watching the whole endeavor of these little creatures, I get a little protective of them,” she said.
Garcia is concerned because the baby has stopped crying, has become lethargic and is no longer dipping in the water. Garcia has contacted more than a dozen wildlife organizations and rescue centers. No one has been able to help.
“They apologized but said to let nature take its course,” she said. “That was not a good answer, in my opinion.”
Because of regulations in the Marine Animal Protection Act of 1972, there is very little anyone can do, said Jessie Huggins, stranding coordinator for Cascadia Research in Olympia. There are very few rehabilitation centers in Washington that can accept harbor seals, and most are already full of pups, she said.
“There are not a lot of options. Our choices right now are euthanizing the animal — which we don’t want to do — or letting nature take its course,” Huggins said.
The Puget Sound harbor seal population is at “carrying capacity” — the maximum level the environment is capable of sustaining the population, she said. A high mortality rate is nature’s way of balancing out over-population.
“We don’t have the resources to save them all, and we really wouldn’t want to do that anyway. We try not to interfere,” Huggins said.
Half of harbor seal pups do not survive their first year, Huggins said. The most testing times for survival are the first two weeks of life, and when they are being weaned off of milk. Those that die become food for eagles. “Let that circle of life happen as it should,” she said.
Garcia said she has a marine biology degree from the University of Florida at Key West, and appreciates the role of natural processes. But she says this pup doesn’t fit what she feels is natural selection.
“It isn’t injured or sick, or have a genetic problem that would hurt the species. It’s just hungry,” she said. “We wouldn’t let our dog starve to death. These little guys deserve the same compassion.”
Officials at Wolf Hollow wildlife rehabilitation on San Juan Island said they would be able accept the pup, but only if it is brought in by someone legally allowed to do so.
“Our job is to rehabilitate the animal. We have no jurisdiction of making assessments of (marine) animals in the wild, and whether it meets the criteria for rehabilitation,” said Shona Aitken, education coordinator at Wolf Hollow.
That assessment is limited to authorized Fish and Wildlife agents, or members of the Northwest Stranding Network, which includes Cascadia Research.
“It’s frustrating that we can’t pick it up,” said Wolf Hollow intern Laura Pape. “Any other (nonmarine) animal, if it’s injured or abandoned, we go get it right away.”
At her wit’s end, Garcia contacted a veterinarian Tuesday to see if he could help feed the baby, but was told it would be illegal and the veterinarian could lose his license. She asked to purchase a feeding tube that she could use to care for the pup herself but was told that, too, would be illegal.
Like all infant mammals, the pup cannot eat solid food and requires a diet of rich, fatty mother’s milk for the first several weeks of life. Feeding the pup is not as simple as dropping pieces of fish nearby.
An untrained person trying to feed the seal would do more harm than good, in addition to breaking the law, Huggins said.
“As many phone calls as I’ve made, as many people as I’ve talked to, and yet nothing can be done?” Garcia said. “These are people who want to help. It shouldn’t be that difficult. Being a state-protected mammal, you wouldn’t think it would be the case. Maybe the whole process needs to be looked at.”
There is a very slim chance the pup could be adopted by another mother. If that were going to happen, Huggins said, the haul-out area is the best place for the pup to be: surrounded by other nursing pups and their mothers.
Garcia said the starving seal pup doesn’t understand the laws designed to protect him. “All he knows is his momma didn’t come back,” she said.