Memorial provides medical care to two-week old harbour seal pup

Jun 8th, 2016

By Jeff Green

Dr. Jennifer Keyte and the harbour seal pup.
Memorial provides medical care to two-week old harbour seal pup

An unexpected visitor caused a bit of a stir on the St. John’s campus on Monday, June 6.

Staff from Animal Care Services (ACS)—a unit within the vice-president (research) portfolio—played an integral role in providing medical care to a small harbour seal pup.

“This is a first for us, for sure,” said Dr. Jennifer Keyte, director of ACS, and university veterinarian.

Dr. Keyte and her staff were quickly called into action to assess the approximately two-week old animal, which weighed about 8.2 kilograms (nearly 18 pounds) and was about 75 centimetres (30 inches) long.

Collective effort

The seal was found alone along the shores of St. Vincent’s, a community in St. Mary’s Bay, about an hour-and-a-half southwest of St. John’s.

It was picked up by someone in the community and taken home. Later attempts by Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) officials to place it back on the beach where it was found, in hopes its mother was still around, were unsuccessful.

That’s when Glenn Temple and Nicole Hefferan-Snow, fisheries officers with DFO, brought the pup to Memorial, where staff examined and re-hydrated the seal.

Newly born

“It hadn’t been weaned by its mother yet,” Dr. Keyte said in an interview with the Gazette. “It was nuzzling at clothes, hands and anything that it thought might have been its mother. That included the dark coloured transport carrier we put it into. As soon as it was inside, it was pushing against the sides with its muzzle, as any nursing infant will when it’s trying to find its source of milk.”

After its short visit to Memorial, the pup was transported to Hope for Wildlife, an animal rehabilitation centre in Seaforth, N.S., that specializes in providing care to orphaned or injured wildlife.

“It will be fed with a ‘slurry’ to replace the seal milk, then they’ll work to get it eating solid food,” noted Dr. Keyte. “It’s the same idea as with any mammal—we need the nutrition that nursing provides, but if nursing isn’t possible, a nutritious, balanced replacement needs to be given. Then it’s time to learn how to eat on your own.”

Common sight

According to DFO, Harbour Seals are one of six species of seals found in the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador. They are primarily found along the south and west coasts of the island and can often be seen resting along the shoreline.

Despite being a common sight, Dr. Keyte says people should not approach or move animals—particularly pups—from their natural setting.

“Wild animals are just that: wild,” she noted. “They exist in the wild and adapt to the circumstances they live in. They’re not meant to be in contact with people or living with people. Most of us do have an affinity to baby animals—they’re cute, in this case fuzzy, and they’re relatively helpless.

“We don’t know if this pup was orphaned or abandoned because no one can say where the pup’s mother was or how long she’d been gone,” added Dr. Keyte. “But if she was okay and just left the pup on the beach for a short time—because of predators in the area, or wanting to feed—it would have come back to find her pup was gone. We don’t know a lot about seal behaviour, but given what we know about other mammals, I suspect she would have been very distressed.”

Observe from afar

If people find an injured or orphaned animal, Dr. Keyte’s best advice is to contact wildlife officials.

“Observe from afar, but it is best not to approach the animals, especially babies, as the mother may be a short distance off and may be scared away by the presence of a human being.”

Dr. Garry Stenson, research scientist and head of the Marine Mammal Section in the Science Branch of DFO in St. John’s agrees.

“It is important to make sure the message that gets out is that people should not pick up ‘abandoned’ seals,” noted Dr. Stenson. “We get quite a few calls each year and almost exclusively, the seals are fine and need just to be left alone. This harbour seal pup was a rare exception in that it was not weaned but even then may not have been abandoned.”

Memorial home to ‘community pets’

Although Memorial was happy to play a role in finding a place for the rehabilitation of the seal pup, Dr. Keyte points out the university is not set up as that sort of facility.

The Ocean Sciences Centre does have a widely popular resident harp seal facility, which is home to three harp seals, but Dr. Keyte says those animals are more like “community pets” and maintained through a public outreach program.

“They are very well-known and well-loved around here, and were formerly used for behaviour research up until the untimely death of the researcher over a decade ago,” she noted. “Since then, Memorial has maintained them for the community to visit year-round. Those harp seals need as much space as they can get, given they’re all mature adults. Taking in the pup would have meant more confined quarters for the harp seals during the pup’s rehabilitation, and that wouldn’t have been good for their well-being.”

That’s when Dr. Keyte reached out Hope for Wildlife. She says the pup has settled in nicely with three other seals.

“This is a feel-good story, because so many people came together to help this little seal pup,” she said. “We certainly hope that it fares well.”



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