Saving 9901

When a badly injured baby porpoise arrived at the National Aquarium, David Schofield gave it a number, not a name. He knew this rescue had to be about science, not emotion. Especially when the day came to let 9901 go.

August 01, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

It was dark outside when David Schofield arose in his Canton townhouse. He turned off two alarm clocks set for 4 a.m. and pulled on a blue T-shirt and shorts while a pot of coffee brewed. He hated the taste, but he gulped an oversized mug and refilled it. After months of painstaking work, the scientist was about to cede control to nature's unpredictable will. All he could do now was be on time and be alert.

He drove quickly through Baltimore's quiet streets and parked by a back entrance to the National Aquarium. Inside, he opened a door marked with red letters: "Quarantine Area: No Admittance" and entered a part of the aquarium the public never sees.

The empty room was lighted only by the awakening June sun seeping through five porthole-shaped windows. In an hour, it would be crowded with police officers, paramedics and veterinarians. But now, only one sound broke the stillness: A gentle sigh.

David walked toward the sound. He came to the edge of the aquarium's 98,000-gallon saltwater pool and looked down. His eyes followed the lone occupant, a baby harbor porpoise, as it swam strong, graceful loops, occasionally surfacing to breathe.

For so long, David had not allowed himself to hope this day would come -- the day the tiny animal would finally begin his journey home to the sea. As he gazed down at the baby porpoise, he marveled that this was the same sick, emaciated creature that had washed up on a beach near Cape Cod five months earlier.

The gray male, with its dark, round eyes and mouth that seemed curved in a shy smile, had suffered a brutal infancy. Injured and lost from its mother, it had been on the brink of starvation.

David, the coordinator of the National Aquarium's marine animal rescue program, had known immediately the odds for saving the baby porpoise were not good. Yet he and his team of volunteers worked around the clock, feeding and rehydrating it and cleaning its wounds. Slowly, the porpoise had responded to their ministrations.

Today's milestone should be cause for celebration. But too many questions gnawed at David.

Somewhere along the way, saving the baby porpoise had become more complicated than simply nursing him back to good health.

David couldn't stop thinking about the troubling signs the little animal had exhibited over the past months. Were they caused by the psychological stress of confinement or was there something terribly wrong -- something all their medical tests had missed?

For weeks, the finest minds at the aquarium had puzzled over what to do. Every option raised new problems. If they kept the porpoise longer for observation, his readjustment to the wild would be more difficult. Additional medical tests would put added stress on the animal.

They had done the best they could for the porpoise, but was it enough? Could human intervention change the powerful law of nature that decreed only the strongest animals fit for survival?

They would have an answer soon. After his release, the porpoise would be monitored by state-of-the-art electronic equipment. His swimming speed and time spent at the water's surface would reveal if he was thriving -- or dying. But there was one hitch: the tracking signal would provide only sporadic, time-delayed information.

That meant they would be powerless to do anything but look on as the porpoise's fate unfolded. What haunted David was that if their efforts failed, they wouldn't know until it was too late.

Rescue from the sea

Five months earlier, on Jan. 25, the aquarium team hurried toward a Falcon 40 jet as it touched down at BWI Airport. The Coast Guard had donated space on its training flight for a passenger covered in a wet bedsheet and contained in a white cooler. As the aquarium's bright yellow truck sped toward the Inner Harbor, David looked into the cooler and noted the animal was not fighting confinement. A bad sign.

The porpoise's thin, wounded body told the story of its struggle. At 36 pounds, it weighed half of what it should. Its neck was shrunken, a sign of malnutrition. And five deep, knife-like cuts crossed its tail shaft -- probably from entanglement in a gill net. Though the commercial fishing industry uses pingers that emit high-pitched sounds, some porpoises still can't resist the cod and haddock-filled nets.

David thought the trauma of its injuries had probably caused the animal to strand itself. When a veterinarian from the New England Aquarium telephoned, ready to euthanize the baby porpoise if the National Aquarium could not take it, David eagerly accepted the creature. Whether it survived or not, David knew the baby porpoise -- the youngest the aquarium had ever seen -- would provide information scientists needed to better understand the species.

The deep gray, blunt-nosed harbor porpoise was a solitary animal, unlike the aquarium's social show dolphins. If the bottlenose dolphin could be compared to a rough-and-tumble Labrador retriever, then the harbor porpoise was a fragile, elusive deer.

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