What to do with the seal in your bathtub

Online advice helps Russian veterinarian save endangered pup

Published: April 21, 2009
By Edie Lau

Seal pup 3At the western edge of Russia, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, the nearest sea mammal rescue group is located in another country. So when someone brought a seal pup, apparently orphaned, into a clinic there, the veterinarians — more accustomed to seeing dogs, cats and the occasional hedgehog — were unsure what to do. 

About two hours after the pup arrived, Dr. Kirill Skomorovski started his shift at the 24-hour clinic. Until that day, Skomorovski had never held a seal in his hands. For the next 12 hours, he and his assistant struggled with the 25-pound animal, trying to persuade it to sit calmly in a box or a bathtub with water, to eat fish or something else. Though the pup had little energy, it would not cooperate.

Unwilling to give up, Skomorovski took the pup home to the two-room apartment in Kaliningrad where he lives with his wife. There, he discovered that help was as near as his computer. 

“This evening, somebody brought a seal pup to our clinic,” he typed into a Veterinary Information Network (VIN) online discussion titled “Seal pup — what to do with it?” He explained where he was and described the appearance and size of the feisty spotted gray creature in his care.

“I have no idea how they should be keeped, housed, feeded, treated and so on,” wrote the veterinarian, who studied biology and veterinary medicine in Israel before returning five years ago to his native Russia to practice. “Could you refer me to any resource?”

Then he added an apologetic second post: “Sorry for such terrible grammar — I’m a little bit discouraged.”

The next morning in California, Dr. Laurie Gage came to Skomorovski’s rescue. A big cat specialist and marine mammal adviser to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, former chief veterinarian for Six Flags Marine World and one-time director of veterinary services for the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Gage has taken care of a few seals in her own bathtub. She’s also walked others through the process long-distance, more typically by telephone.

Gage dove in. She advised him how to warm the pup but not overheat it. How to rehydrate the seal and what and how to feed it. Gave thoughts on how to identify its species and age and guidance on giving access to water for swimming.

During the next two days, Gage and Skomorovski conversed frequently online, the Russian veterinarian documenting his efforts to feed the pup with a stomach tube and trying to get up-to-speed on healthy seal pup behavior.

“Half of the time, it sleeps on its side (is it normal position for sleep? Should it sleep so long?) and the rest of the time it vocalize and/or tries to crawl somewhere away from the room (Is it normal or probably it is the sign of discomfort?) It stretches itself and yawns a lot (Is it the sign of acidosis or any other metabolic abnormality or it is normal?).”

All those behaviors, Gage assured him, were normal.

Two days after Skomorovski posted his call for help, the picture had changed entirely. “This guy (or girl) is doing better and better!” he reported, describing how the pup had gobbled up a fish offered to him that was tied to a string and jerked about provocatively.
By the next day, Skomorovski had to ask: “Can I feed him as much as he want or should I limit him?” because “this guy want to eat fish all the time!”

What Skomorovski didn’t post, but what he told VIN News Service in an interview by e-mail, was that he and his wife, Sayori, who happens to be five months pregnant, had basically given their apartment to the young wild animal.

“We live in one room and the pup lives in the rest of the apartment (other room, kitchen and bathroom),” he said. “We don’t have (a) bathtub, but a shower cabin, and the pup takes baths and eats in the underpan of the shower cabin. The rest of the time, she walks all around the apartment, cries, urinates and defecates and demands attention and food.”

By sending photographs to biologists at the nearest Russian seal rescue organization in St. Petersburg, some 600 miles away, Skomorovski was able to determine that his charge was a female gray seal.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources at one time considered the Baltic Sea gray seal population endangered, but an assessment in 2008 determined that its numbers were growing to the point that the species could be placed under the category of “Least Concern.”

Nevertheless, Skomorovski said they continue to be a “very, very protected” species, which made obtaining expert help for his seal more complicated. He was told he would need special permission from the government to transport such an animal. Moreover, St. Petersburg is separated from Kaliningrad not only by many hundreds of miles but by international borders. A traveler by land must pass through Lithuania and Latvia or Lithuania and Belarus to get from one Russian city to the other.

Skomorovski noted there probably are seal rescue groups nearer to him in Poland to the south, but that “it is much more difficult to collaborate with (a) foreign organization regarding this issue.”

Skomorovski said his clinic, called Belyi Klyk (which translates to White Fang, named for the Jack London book), was willing to help the little seal but unable to provide appropriate conditions.

“In the clinic, it would be in a cage,” he said. “Any access to water would be problematic. It couldn’t move all around, like it does in my home.

“And the other issue is the financial one. We treat a lot of homeless or left animals. This is free of charge, of course. In addition, a lot of people do not pay us after we treated their pet (especially if the pet did not recover). That’s why the administration of our clinic is not so glad to see any additional philanthropic project. Thus, I decided to take the girl home.”

Despite the distance from St. Petersburg, Skomorovski was expecting one of the biologists there to come to Kaliningrad this week to help him. The plan is to move the pup to a zoo in Kaliningrad where the seal can continue during the next month or so to gain weight and strength for an eventual return to the wild.

While she’s in the zoo, Skomorovski added, “I’d like to continue to be the pup’s vet and to continue to care for her.”

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