Russian veterinarian becomes impromptu seal expert

Stranded pups show up three years in a row

May 31, 2011 (published)
By Edie Lau

For three consecutive springs, Dr. Kirill Skomorovski has cared for gray seal pups from the Baltic Sea. The small-animal veterinarian, with help from colleagues within the Veterinary Information Network's international online community, has become the resident expert on ailing young seals in his Russian city, Kaliningrad.
Until two years ago, Dr. Kirill Skomorovski had never touched a seal. Now he’s the go-to guy for stranded seal pups in Kaliningrad, Russia, near the Baltic Sea.

The veterinarian, whose typical patients are dogs and cats, came by his reputation for seal care by accident in the spring of 2009, when someone left a skinny, apparently orphaned, seal pup at the emergency clinic where Skomorovski worked at the time.

That seal, it turned out, would be the first in a series. In each of the two springs since then, Skomorovski has been called to tend another seal pup needing medical attention.

“It seems to be a ‘tradition’ now: one seal a year,” Skomorovski wrote on May 21 in a message board post on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), a global online community for the profession.

As Dr. Wendy Smith Wilson, a practitioner in Proctorville, Ohio, commented: “You’re getting to be a pro at this!”

Colleagues on VIN experienced in marine mammal medicine helped Skomorovski through the challenging period in 2009 of nursing the first pup, whom he named Lily, back to strength. Because the clinic where he worked was not equipped to care for a seal, he brought it to the two-room apartment he shared with his wife, who was 5 months pregnant at the time.

There, for two weeks, they tended the seal and allowed her to feel at home. “We live in one room and the pup lives in the rest of the apartment (other room, kitchen and bathroom),” he told the VIN News Service back then. “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.”

Lily eventually was moved to the local zoo, where she continued to fatten up and gain vigor for her return to the wild. She was successfully released to the sea about two months after her rehabilitation began.

Then, in April 2010, someone found another apparently abandoned seal pup on the beach. Recalling a television story he’d seen about Skomorovski’s previous seal work, the person contacted the veterinarian.

“This is a gray seal pup again,” Skomorovski reported on the VIN message board. “He is a boy this time. He is somewhat bigger than the previous pup but even more emaciated (13 kg) (about 28 pounds). This time, we transferred the pup to the zoo pool on the third day and continued to treat the pup there.”

Skomorovski said Elena Andrievskaya, a seal specialist from the Center for Marine Mammal Rehabilitation in St. Petersburg, who had advised him on Lily’s case the year before, traveled the 600 miles to Kaliningrad and handled most of the pup’s care. The center is the nearest Russian seal-rescue organization.

“The pup passed from tube-feeding to eating fish completely within one week,” Skomorovski wrote. “He had diarrhea and pneumonia which were successfully treated with antibiotics and supportive care.”

Once he reached 35 to 40 kg (between 77 and 88 pounds), Skomorovski told the VIN News Service, the pup was returned to the wild.

A third pup showed up this May. Staff at the 24-hour clinic in Kaliningrad found it lying on a fishing net under a bush near the building. Skomorovski no longer works at that clinic — he owns a mobile practice now — but he got the call.

The patient was another gray seal, this one female, estimated to be 1-1/2 months old. Skomorovski said she weighed 12.6 kg (less than 28 pounds), far below the 40 kg (88 pounds) that he considers normal for her age. She was in bad shape.

“It was dehydrated and had numerous wounds (probably from stray dogs),” the veterinarian recounted. “There was one very big wound on the neck and very many smaller wounds on the body, on the head, on the muzzle, on the limbs. It was active and behaved very aggressively. Probably it was very frightened.”

Skomorovski said he and the staff brought the seal into the clinic, sedated it, cleared and bandaged the wounds, administered antibiotic and gave fluids through a gastric tube. After a night in the clinic, it was transferred the next day to the local zoo.

Zoo personnel call Skomorovski from time to time with medical questions about the pup, but other than that, he said, he is not directly involved in seal care.

Not until, perhaps, next spring.

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