The seal weanling “Garlic” is pictured on Wells Beach Tuesday morning. Marine Mammals of Maine volunteers determined he had a severe upper resperitory illness and transported him to Massachsetts for rehabilitation.

The seal weanling “Garlic” is pictured on Wells Beach Tuesday morning. Marine Mammals of Maine volunteers determined he had a severe upper resperitory illness and transported him to Massachsetts for rehabilitation.

WELLS — If your puppy or cat comes down with an illness, usually it’s a short trip to the vet, a few medications, and your pet is home more quickly than a sneeze.

With a harbor seal, however, an illness can turn into a dangerous ordeal – often after a seal has beached itself near humans, volunteers have only a few minutes to decide whether the animal can make the more than 100-mile trip to the nearest marine animal rehabilitation center.

So when a young seal stranded itself on Wells Beach at around 6 a.m. Tuesday, Marine Mammals of Maine acted quickly.

Marine Mammals of Maine responds to between 300-350 animal strandings all along the Maine coast, and has a trained corps of volunteers dedicated to responding quickly to animals in need. This particular one, a gray harbor seal with a tan face named “Garlic” by scientists at the National Marine Life Center, was actually spotted the day before near Ogunquit Beach, landing on the beach but swimming away before MMA were able to respond.

This time, however, the seal wasn’t going anywhere. MMA volunteers determined he had an upper respiratory illness that may have advanced to pneumonia, as well as an elevated temperature, dehydration and a few mild cuts from a collision or attack.

According to Dominque Walk, the Assistant Stranding Coordinator for Marine Mammals of Maine, young seals are particularly vulnerable at this time of year because they are being weaned from their mother’s milk.

“Especially for this age group, a lot of the animals we see are dealing with upper respiratory illnesses,” she said, adding that the seal was probably weaned starting in July. “This is when we see them (in) a little bit worse condition.”

Rescues have changed dramatically in the past two years. In 2014, the University of New England shut down their Marine Animal Rescue and Conservation program, which it had operated since 2001, citing reports that seals were no longer endangered. What would have been a half-hour drive from Wells to Biddeford now is upwards of two hours to Bourne, Massachusetts, where the National Marine Life Center is housed, and even longer from the Midcoast. This came as a surprise to the Marine Mammals of Maine staff, and has caused a dramatic shift in prioritization as the staff has to decide which animals they can save.

The MMA has recently been involved in funding a triage center for seals in Harpswell, where seals can get better treatment and volunteers can have more time to decide what will happen next – currently they are in the process of trying to open that facility, and in the future they are considering building a rehabilitation center of their own. But for now, many animals are not so lucky.

“A lot of them are not stable enough to make that transport, Walk said. “Even if there is space available at these facilities, instead of bringing them to the rehab center, we have to make really difficult decisions. … If that answer was no, they would not survive, we would have to make the very difficult decision to humanely euthanize. … It’s been pretty devastating.”

However, Garlic was one of the lucky ones. The National Marine Life center in Bourne had one space left for a seal where it could get X-rays and treatment for a likely case of pneumonia, and volunteers determined that the weanling was strong enough to make the 160-mile trip in the back of a volunteer’s car to the center. On the Marine Mammals Facebook page, they reported the rescue as “successful” and thanked the Wells Police department for their assistance in keeping the animal safe.


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