I spent over eight hours last night as I do every Wednesday, volunteering in the Marin Headlands for an organization dedicated to preserving and rehabilitating sick marine animals. The Marine Mammal Center is the largest of its kind in the world, completely non-profit and privately run, so of course they need lots of volunteers. Our patients are mostly young and female Northern elephant seals, California seal lions, and Northern fur seals, though we often have harbor seals, Steller’s, Guadelupes, and the occasional porpoise, small whale, sea otter, or sea turtle. I first found interest in this subject while visiting an exhibit in Golden Gate Park focused on the skulls of animals from around the world, from elephant to crocodile, pekingese to snake. One wall of the space featured literally hundreds of sea lion craniums arranged in a wave pattern from wall to wall, and a photographic plaque that showed the flesh-stripping process really caught my eye, as did the glass case filled with necrotic bug colonies. Since my vocation was already well underway, I figured the best way to try my hand at post-mortem playthings was to take on some volunteer work. So after a few well-placed queries, I found my way up to the lovely fog-enshrouded headlands for some stinky and smelly fun.
Well, all blood and guts aside, the most valuable incarnation of the Center besides its education progam is surely the continuing animal care that most of the volunteers do. This consists of everything from sorting dozens of boxes of frozen herring, grinding fish into milkshakes that would make your blender run for the hills, free-feeding, tube-feeding, wrangling and wrestling, the occasional rolling in shit and vomit (us, not the animals), washing piles of dishes and pieces of equipment, administering medication (iv, sub q, and orally), taking blood, and the like. It’s actually pretty strenuous work, as we’re on the night shift and often in the rain and fog from 5:00 or 6:00 until between 1:00 and 3:00 AM. But the people I work with are amazing and the whole experience is character-building and very rewarding. In addition, there’s plenty of ugly stuff to do, as the Center uses the remains of the unlucky deceased animals as education aids for museums and classrooms. In the past year, as well as my animal care duties, I have gotten to skin dead harbor seals and sea lions and prepare them for tanning, macerate their heads and flippers, strip the flesh and reassemble the skulls for museum samples, and observe and assist with necropsy.
Why would I do something so morbid and stinky? Becasue I didn’t think I could. And believe me, when the smell of rotting brain tissue lodges itself in your septum piercing, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But it is fascinating, if not revolting.
So last night, we had three deaths at the Center. All three were California sea lions, and all three were in pretty bad shape to begin with. Though we have a pretty good rehabilitation and release rate (generally around 60%) sometimes the condition of the animal upon arrival is too degraded to save them. One of our three was, in fact, DOA. Usually the animals that come in are either found stranded or beached, but some wander far from the coast or are shot or netted by humans. As well, malnutrition, cancer, herpies, and demoic acid buildup (a product of toxic fungal bloom) are prime causes of disorientation and seizing, but we have seen weird stuff like brain parasites, crossbow piercings, and strange people who try to take the poor things home to live in their bathtubs. In that case, we would rather rehabilitate the humans, but there are laws against that, at least for us.
One of my jobs was to pick up the deceased animals and bring them to the necropsy room, prepare bags of ice to retard decompostion until the examination can take place the next morning. It is by all means a strange feeling to carry around these creatures, especially after rigor mortis has had a chance to set in. I always expect them to jump awake and try ot take off my hand! But what I do notice from being so close is that these mammals seem to have no soul in their eyes. When a human dies, some people have said that you can see the blankness in their stare, the dearth of life through the eyes. These animals have nothing. They look the same alive as not. In fact, the only way we can be sure that they’re gone is to poke ‘em carefully. But that’s it. Interesting, and always an adventure. And now you can go write that terrible paper on specious marine animal care. And you have me to thank. And please, don’t take them home with you if you find one on a beach, or we’ll find you and roll you in shit. And vomit.