Aquarium takes stranded seal under its flipper

March 04, 1995|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

A year-old harp seal, found stranded on Assateague Island at least 500 miles south of its natural habitat, was in critical condition yesterday at the National Aquarium.

T. David Schofield, a senior mammalogist at the aquarium, said the seal was found Monday, weighing 76 pounds -- about 35 pounds below normal -- and was dehydrated and possibly stricken with parasites. Its condition has improved only slightly since it was found, he said.

"We're watching this animal closely," Mr. Schofield said. "It still is under critical condition and is getting critical care."

The rescue comes on the eve of International Day of the Seal on Sunday, said Laura Johnson, an aquarium spokeswoman.

The seal is being kept at a warehouse in Fells Point, several blocks from the Inner Harbor center, where it is resting alone in a 6-by-8-foot quarantine tank with a small pool. The windows are frosted to provide a calming serenity.

Yesterday, the animal's coat was its normal silvery gray on the back, but had a discolored yellowish sheen on its bottom side, which is decorated with dark splotches that identify the species. It peered at visitors with large, dark eyes.

Looking lethargic, the seal pushed away pieces of fish frozen in ice cubes.

Mr. Schofield said harp seals of similar ages normally eat about 10 to 12 pounds of fish a day. He said the captive seal should have a more rounded appearance, suggesting that it has not eaten for some time.

"He's still not wanting solid food," Mr. Schofield said. "He's still not what we'd like to see, having a strong, wild demeanor."

While trying to fatten him up, volunteers like Judy Gresser and Stacey Long also are concerned that it will become too tame or too stressed while being fed and nursed. They monitor its behavior and respiratory rate.

"He's naturally defensive," Ms. Gresser said. "We want him to stay that way."

The seal was spotted on the state park beach at Assateague about 8:30 a.m. Monday by Maryland Department of Natural Resources rangers.

"It was acting sluggish and was favoring one of its flippers, leaning on one side," said Denise L. McNamara, one of the rangers.

She said she got within 50 feet. "I was trying to get a good look at it to see if there were any outward signs of injury. When we approached it, it went back in the water. I said that we would have to recheck the beach later," she said.

About two hours later, with the seal back on land, Ms. McNamara contacted the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which captured the seal and placed it in a cage.

Aquarium employees picked up the seal at Cambridge and immediately noticed the dehydration. They are conducting tests to determine whether the animal is suffering from viruses, tapeworms or lungworms.

Mr. Schofield said the harp seal came ashore because it wasn't strong enough to swim or forage for food.

"Their last-ditch effort for survival is to come up on the beach and spend extended periods of time on land," he said.

Mr. Schofield said the seal did have an appetite for one thing -- ice.

"You'll see this animal just chomp away at the ice cubes," he said. "It was really into eating ice. When they come into warmer climates, the fear is that it may eat rocks, which could cause quite a bit of damage."

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