Better Understanding Nature: What We Have Learned From Animal Rescues

There many people, organizations and federal agencies involved in animal care in the United States and around the globe. For example, free ranging marine mammals are under the watchful eye of the Office of Protected Resources at NOAA Fisheries, a service of the Department of Commerce. NOAA Fisheries is also the federal agency that conducts the nationwide Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Network (MMHSN) program. This is the primary source of federal support for Rescue and Rehabilitation programs (for marine mammals) in the US. Most rescue and rehabilitation (for all animals) is conducted by volunteer organizations, most often non-profits that are supported largely through the philanthropy of concerned citizens, in addition to accredited zoos and aquariums around the country. Marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation programs that provide hands-on care to stranded marine mammals must be permitted by NOAA Fisheries. We are fortunate to be able to provide personnel, equipment and expertise as support to a number of these permit holders.

I've had the amazing experience of visiting and spending time at many MMHSN participant locations and even worked for the largest one for a few years. Sometimes those visits were conducted to accompany a newly adopted member of Shedd Aquarium's family on their ride to their new home. When a stranded animal is deemed 'non-releasable' meaning it cannot care for itself in the wild and it would be therefore inhumane to turn it loose back into the wild, there are two alternatives. One is to find a suitable qualified forever home with all the needed dedicated resources and expertise to provide the life-long daily care and attention to the animal that it will need and deserves. The other option is euthanasia. So it has been incredibly heartwarming for me to be involved in transporting quite a few non-releasable animals to Shedd and other forever homes. One of my early experiences with this was traveling along with an orphan baby sea otter on my lap from Alaska in May of 2005. I had been in Alaska for the annual meeting of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine when it was agreed Shedd would be able to provide a forever home for her. Her round-the-clock care had been provided up until that point by the Rescue and Rehab team at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, Alaska.

I remember vividly the first time I saw another of the current Shedd family members when he presented as a skinny wounded sea lion pup to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA where I was then working as the Director of Veterinary Services. This sea lion named Cruz was a gunshot victim. Many, many of the animals that present to marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation centers end up there due to obvious direct negative human interaction. They show up entangled in marine debris like trash and derelict fishing gear; they show up having been injured by passing boats, and they sometimes show up after having been intentionally shot as in Cruz's case.

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Cruz at Shedd Aquarium ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

When we have the opportunity to give rescued animals forever homes, we have the chance to discover answers to questions we don't even know we have yet. We have the chance to better understand nature. In all these situations, the ocean trash, the boat strikes, it is never the fault of the animal that gets them in trouble. The animals are just there doing what they've been doing forever. People are usually the root cause of the conflict. And in every case the animals bring with them their story. The story of where they came from and how they got to be there. And it is in these stories that lie a richness of information that we cannot and should not ignore. They are all telling us about the condition of their home, the ocean. They all come with amazing information. They are enlightening us about how they survive (or try to) in an environment that is pretty harsh (and getting harsher) for a marine mammal. Furthermore, even in those situations where the cause of the stranding is not obviously directly due to human activity, if we look close enough we often find that humans are in fact behind the cause. No fish to eat? Perhaps the fish populations have been decimated by unsustainable fisheries practices. Or perhaps the fishes are suffering because they cannot find food either, because their food has been poisoned by polluting chemicals.

Regardless though, people are unique among all the animal kingdom in their ability to solve problems. To creatively work together and to implement change; to forecast conditions and strive to make them better. We alone are gifted in our ability to do these things and we owe it to the rest of the animals to listen to their stories, to learn the lessons they teach us when we are gifted with the privilege of spending time with them, getting up close to them and getting to understand them better; when they show up on our beaches and at the doors of our hospitals.

At a time when an alarming number of species around the world are facing critical threats produced by human activity such as overfishing, habitat degradation, plastic pollution and increasing warmer waters, Shedd Aquarium is reaffirming its commitment to helping animals in need around the globe. To support the Animal Response Team's mission to protect the health and well-being of animals in need, visit www.sheddaquarium.org/sheddvocate to pledge, give, share or visit today.