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Californians help storm-tossed seals, sea lions find a refuge

The movie stars of Malibu are not the only California beach residents left homeless by the storms that have been pounding the West Coast this winter and spring. Hundreds of young elephant seals, sea lions, and harbor seals have been separated from their mothers in the storms and would have little chance of survival without help from the California Marine Mammal Center here.

Mother Nature delivered a one-two punch to West Coast marine mammals this year as record rainfalls combined with some of the highest tides in a decade. Mary Jane Schramm, spokeswoman for the center and leader of its treatment team, explains that marine mammals give birth on sandy beaches or rock outcroppings. This year, the abnormally high tides swept many newborns away. If a newborn pup is not reunited with its mother within 48 hours after birth, Ms. Schramm says, the mother won't recognize the scent of her offspring and will reject it.

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Volunteers at the nonprofit center expect to rescue and treat 250 stranded pinnipeds this year, double the usual number. So far this year the 120 volunteers at the Marine Mammal Center have been rescuing seal and sea lion pups - as well as some injured, ill, or disoriented adults - at the rate of more than one a day.

Tipped off by local beach residents, state park rangers, or the US Coast Guard that a beached marine mammal appears to be in distress, the volunteers jump into their rescue truck, collect the animal, and bring it back to the center for treatment.

The center overlooks the Pacific Ocean on the grounds of a former basing site for Nike missiles at Fort Cronkhite. Abandoned in the 1970s, the fort now is part of the National Park Service. Today the missile silos serve as storage lockers for frozen herring, and an office building has been converted into an intensive-care nursery for premature harbor seals. The center's animals are housed in pens, portable kennels, and troughs that look like oversized bathtubs.

Ms. Schramm says almost half of the animals that arrive at the center are successfully treated and returned to the wild. Survival seems to depend on the animal's age, its general health, and, in the case of a pup, how much time has elapsed since it last was nursed.

Many animals, battered against the rocks by the wild surf, are in poor shape when they reach the center, says Ms. Schramm. High winds and waves have muddied the ocean, sending fish to lower depths to seek refuge - and the sea lions and seals follow. Although they are able to dive to depths of 600 feet, such deep dives may weaken the marine mammals, causing a number of health problems. And as the storms wash away the sandy beaches that make up their living space, the marine mammals are forced to live in overcrowded conditions in the remaining habitat.

Once the marine mammals reach the center, they undergo a rehabilitation program. The center has a small paid staff of marine biologists; many health and science professionals are included in the ranks of volunteers. Volunteer ophthalmologists have even restored eyesight to some animals suffering from cataracts, says Ms. Schramm.

After the seals and sea lions are treated for diseases, the next task is to bring them up to their normal weight. For young animals who still would be nursing in the wild, volunteers prepare a rich ''baby formula'' in a heavy-duty Cuisinart. Using 50 gallons of whipping cream each week, they whip up a rich mixture of cream, pureed herring, and vitamins and minerals. Normally, a sea lion in the wild would grow from 60 pounds at birth to 300 pounds within 60 days , a weight gain of about 12 pounds a day. Center volunteers aim for the same results with their whipped-cream formula.

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Older animals who are past nursing age get plenty of whole herring as the staple of their diet. Ms. Schramm calculates the center is running up a weekly tab of $6,000 for frozen fish. It's no wonder: An adult sea lion will chow down 18 pounds of herring each day in three sittings.

It may take up to a year for an animal to regain its health and store up enough blubber to be safely returned to the wild. In the meantime, the easy life at the center may cause some animals to become a bit flabby and out of shape. Those animals are put on a strict physical fitness program that includes swimming laps in a tank at the San Francisco Zoo.

When the animals are ready for release, the staff tags them and takes them by boat to marine mammal breeding grounds off San Francisco. The idea is to put some distance between the animals and humans, whom they have come to associate with food. Seals and sea lions have sharp teeth and probably would not hesitate to use them on a person who doesn't deliver the goods, Ms. Schramm says.

Members of several wildlife groups telephone the center whenever they spot a tagged marine mammal in the wild. Ms. Schramm says it gives the volunteers great satisfaction to hear about a past patient now happily adapted to life as a wild animal.

Ms. Schramm, a legal secretary who spends much of her free time at the center , says she realizes some of the stranded animals will die. She now concentrates her attention on the many that can be saved.

She says that the persistent development of commercial and residential properties along the coast has ruined much of the marine mammals' natural environment. The storms this year compounded the problem, she says.

The center's funds come entirely from private donors and corporate gifts, but bills for herring and whipped cream are piling up, volunteers say.

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