From bathtub to the Baltic Sea

Rescued seal pup returns to the wild

June 12, 2009 (published)
By Edie Lau

An orphaned seal pup that took over the apartment of a kind Russian veterinarian and his pregnant wife this spring has returned to the Baltic Sea, healthy, plump and apparently ready for life in the wild.

Russian veterinarian Dr. Kirill Skomorovski (in white shirt) ushers the gray seal he nursed to health back to the Baltic Sea.
Dr. Kirill Skomorovski, the veterinarian who looked after the baby seal in his two-room apartment for two critical weeks, reported that the gray seal he and his wife named Lily was released Wednesday around lunchtime along the Curonian Spit under clear skies. The water temperature was about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Watched by an entourage of about 20 people, including rangers, news reporters and videographers, Lily, freed from a cage, seemed to know exactly what to do. “The pup crawled directly to the water when we put her on the sand,” Skomorovski recounted by e-mail. 

Her caretakers marked the seal’s head and shoulders with green fluorescent paint to identify her for the short term. Skomorovski said the paint should last about a month.

Lily also was marked with a microchip, like those inserted under the skin in dogs and cats, to make the seal identifiable if it ever shows up among humans again — “If one would guess to scan her,” Skomorovski added wryly.

Wednesday’s release was a happy ending to a saga that began on April 7 when the seal pup was dropped off at the clinic where Skomorovski works in Kaliningrad, located in western Russia near the Baltic Sea.

Up to that point, Skomorovski, a small-animal practitioner, had never so much as held a seal before.

Because the clinic, Belyi Klyk, was ill-equipped to provide medical care for a marine mammal, Skomorovski took home the thin, 26-pound seal. But he didn’t know quite what to do with it, and the nearest Russian experts in seal rescue were in St. Petersburg, separated from Kaliningrad by 600 miles and multiple international borders (Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus).

So Skomorovski did what many people these days do when they need information. He turned to the Internet. There, he posted a plea for assistance on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN).

In California, Dr. Laurie Gage, 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, answered his plea. Using an online discussion board, she guided Skomorovski through the steps needed to nurse the pup to health. She advised him on what and how to feed it, how to keep it warm but not too warm, what its normal behavior should be and how much access to water it needed.

Within two days, the pup had improved to the point of swimming around in the pan of the Skomorovskis’ shower stall, and eating fish directly rather than needing to be fed formula through a stomach tube.

After showing photographs of his patient to Russian biologists familiar with seal species of the area, Skomorovski determined that his charge was a female gray seal.

As it gained strength, the seal took up the Skomorovskis’ kitchen, bathroom and spare room. “... She walks all around the apartment, cries, urinates and defecates and demands attention and food,” the veterinarian told the VIN News Service.

After two weeks, Skomorovski was able to transfer Lily to a local zoo, where it spent seven weeks gaining weight and acclimating to cold water.

Skomorovski and zoo staff took pains to prevent Lily from losing her wildness. The seal was kept in a pool separate from the zoo’s resident seals, and Skomorovski purchased an opaque film to edge the pool so that humans could watch and tend Lily without her seeing them.

“The pup almost never saw people during her life in the zoo. They fed her (by) throwing the fish above the fence with the film. This way, we succeeded to wean her from people before release,” Skomorovski said.

For his part, Skomorovski had to be weaned from the seal, too. “I would like to visit her very often but the zoo staff correctly noted that I should keep out of her (sight) more than any other people because the pup was already attached to me personally. ... Thus, I saw her just two times after she (moved) to the zoo.”

By the time of her release, Lily weighed 86 pounds — more than three times its weight upon entering the clinic in early April — and was eating seven to eight pounds of Canadian herring a day. That’s how its caretakers knew the seal was ready to go home.

“It was sad, of course, to say goodbye forever to Lily,” Skomorovski said, “but we were glad that everything finished successfully.”

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