The founder and president of the Westbrook-based Marine Animal Lifeline, Greg Jakush, is leaving the organization after 13 years.

Jakush’s departure comes at a troubled time for the organization. Last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service stripped the organization of its authority to rescue and hold seals. Federal officials said the action was taken because it claimed the organization failed to test rehabbing seals for a deadly virus.

Jakush denied that the organization failed to do the tests, saying the problem was a “miscommunication.”

Last month, federal officials shut the organization down after inspectors said a surprise inspection showed that Marine Animal Lifeline failed to provide screening forms and samples for the tests.

Jakush contends the screenings were done, adding that the tests were done at the end of the season from samples taken from animals rescued and rehabbed by the organization. “This year, we tested 65 animals for (the virus),” Jakush said. He did not provide the results of the tests.

Jakush, whose last day as head of Marine Animal Lifeline was last Friday, said his decision to step down was not forced by the action taken against the organization.

A spokeswoman for the Marine Animal Lifeline’s board of directors, Dianna Fletcher, could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Jakush, 37, who founded Marine Animal Lifeline in 1994, said he was leaving the organization to spend more time with his family. “My work has always been the number one priority of my life, that is until I met my wife a few years ago,” Jakush said. “After almost two decades of 12-hour workdays and a bit of getting older, I’ve come to realize that life is much more than what you do for work. My family has taken second seat for a long while and it’s now time for them to be my focus.”

Jakush said he had tried to leave the organization about two years ago, but the board told him that if he left the seal rescue operation would not be able to continue on without him. He said since then, he has worked on strengthening the organization to ensure it would survive his departure.

While he said the action taken against the organization was not directly related to his departure, Jakush acknowledged that since there were no animals to care for, it “opened a door” for him to leave.

“I could have stayed and fought and gotten deep into it,” said Jakush. “But I didn’t have the energy.”

“We weren’t going to be operating anyway,” continued Jakush. He said now the board will have the time to devote its energies to replacing him without worrying about caring for sick marine mammals at the same time.

Marine Animal Lifeline operates what Jakush deems as one of the most successful marine mammal rehabilitation programs in the country. According to Jakush, since the organization was founded, it has rescued more than 5,000 sick and injured seals, dolphins, porpoises and whales, with the medical program boasting a 94 percent survival rate.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with the results,” Jakush said. “Our medical staff and hundreds of volunteers have worked passionately every day to save the lives of animals.”

Speaking about the government action to stop the organization from rescuing and rehabbing animals, Jakush said he wasn’t sure when the organization would be able to resume its rescue missions, adding that Marine Animal Lifeline is continuing to try and work out a solution with government officials. “I think all of the issues with the federal government are going to be resolved soon,” he said.

While he has stepped down as president of Marine Animal Lifeline, Jakush said he plans to help guide the organization through the transition to new leadership. He said he plans to take the summer off and then start contemplating his future.

Jakush said the organization comes from humble beginnings. He founded Marine Animal Lifeline out of his home in Dayton “with next to nothing,” he said.

Help soon came from a charitable organization backed by one of Maine’s most famous citizens, the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation. “I’ll never forget the first grant we received,” Jakush said. “I thought it was like winning the lottery. It got us off the ground.”

While Jakush said he is proud of all of the animals his organization has saved, one particular rescue stands out in his mind. Marine Animal Rescue got a call about a newborn harbor seal pup that was stranded on the beach on Cousins Island and being abused by a group of teenagers.

When volunteers arrived at the beach, the teenagers were gone, but the seal was still there, in bad shape. “The animal was pretty banged up and comatose,” Jakush remembered.

However, this story had a happy ending. “We worked on that animal for several days and it survived,” Jakush said.

Jakush said it is the dedication of the many volunteers that has helped Marine Animal Lifeline save the lives of so many animals like that seal pup on Cousins Island. “We couldn’t have built this organization without them,” he said.

Greg Jakush, the founder and president of the Westbrook-based Marine Animal Lifeline, helps to rescue two stranded seals. Jakush is stepping down from the organization he founded 13years ago.Greg Jakush, the founder and president of the Westbrook-based Marine Animal Lifeline (left) helps prepare a seal for surgery. Jakush is stepping down from the organization he founded 13 years ago.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: