By Willow Phelps
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, an organization that helps animals who wash ashore in New Jersey and surrounding areas, was started in 1978 by Bob Schoelkopf and Sheila Dean. Sheila explains that they started MMSC “because there was no one to take care of the animals that washed up on beaches. Bob and I started taking care of them so they wouldn’t lie on the beach and die.”
The couple were already educated in marine animal care because before that, they trained dolphins and sea lions. “Sometimes those animals would get sick and we had veterinarians come in to help them. We studied what the vets did and assisted with the medication and care. Bob also worked in the military taking care of wounded soldiers when he was in Vietnam. That gave him some medical background in the field, which he applies to marine mammals.”
Since then, they’ve dedicated their lives to marine mammals and sea turtles.
I have always admired the work of MMSC and even attended a seal release last month, where I was inspired to learn more about helping seals. Below is my full interview with Sheila Dean, Co-Director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center:
Why doesn’t MMSC name the animals they save?
We don’t normally name them because they aren’t going to keep that name. It’s not like they will be living in captivity. I secretly give some of them my own “pet” names because I feel a deep connection to them.
The seals are not always released on the same beach. Why is that?
It depends on the species and the time of year. Sometimes we release harbor seals into the colony of seals that are near the MMSC. Harp seals have to journey back to the Arctic so we let them go a little farther north, this gets them just a little closer. We do know that some of our harp seals have made it back to at least Canada because researchers spot them with the tags we apply to their rear flippers. All seals that are released are tagged, like a pierced ear. Males get a tag on their left rear flipper and females get a tag on the right rear flipper. One year we were able to get a grant to put satellite tags on the seals. We found that the harbor seals went to Maine, while the harp seals would go further north into Canada.
Some species of seals can live 30-35 years. Do seals live with families or by themselves?
They are loners for the most part. All of the grey seals we see in New Jersey during the spring were born in Northern Atlantic waters, off the New England coast, during the months of December and January. The mothers nurse them for about three weeks and then leave them to fend for themselves. The pups are then on their own to find food.
Harbor seals spend time in the water with their babies, but grey and harp seals just nurse them on land or ice until they are good and fat and then leave them. Harbor seals haul out together on sand bars and rocks. I’m not really sure if it is a social thing or just to have safety in numbers. Grey seals and harp seal moms all group together when they are ready to give birth. Again, a safety thing.
Where can other kids like me learn more about helping marine animals?
In the summer, MMSC offers camps to learn about different marine mammals and sea turtles and how to save them. For more information about summer camp or the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, visit www.mmsc.org.
You can also watch seal pups at this online seal cam! Right now they have videos of the past season that you can view.
If someone sees a stranded seal (or other animal) on a beach, what should they do?
They should follow these instructions:
- Keep your distance (this includes your pets). NOAA suggests that people stay at least 50 yards away from a resting seal.
- Remain quiet and still when observing, as noise and startling movements will disturb them.
- In New Jersey, call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center’s 24-hour hotline at 609-266-0538. Stranding technicians are trained in helping these animals.
- While waiting for authorities to arrive, do not try to feed the animal.
- Leave the animal where it has stranded. DO NOT chase or move it back into the water.
- For the safety of all, remember that wild animals will bite to defend themselves.
To make a donation to MMSC or to “adopt” a seal, please visit www.mmsc.org.
About the Author: In her 10 years, Willow Phelps has done more for animals than most adults do in a lifetime — raising more than $15k for animals by doing runs, swims, and sewing; fostering and giving hospice care to numerous dogs and cats, and earning the title of ASPCA’s Kid of the Year (2016). A committed vegetarian, her concern includes all creatures, from goldfish to marine mammals, from farm animals to animals in the wild, and of course companion animals.