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Saving the seals: local veterinarian launches new marine wildlife research group

  • Written by Kirsten Abel, Features Writer

For a region rich in marine life like the Pacific Northwest, space to rehabilitate and study marine animals is surprisingly limited.

That’s where SR3 (Sealife Response, Rehab, and Research) comes in. It’s a new, multi-faceted organization started by Woodinville-resident and former Seattle Aquarium head veterinarian Dr. Lesanna Lahner.

Seal pupDr. Lesanna Lahner, the veterinarian and executive director at SR3, tends to a harbor seal pup (Photo by Kristin Campbell)“Nothing like this exists here,” said Lahner, the Executive Director of SR3. The organization’s soon-to-be-built pools, which will be used to study and care for a variety of marine wildlife, will be completed this fall at the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington. The pools will allow for the rehabilitation of 50 to 75 animals each year.

Currently the only pools in the area, at PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, have a capacity for just up to six animals.

Over the course of the next several years, SR3 will build its own long-term facility in West Seattle. There, the team will be able to research and attend to even more animals, something that Lahner said is a must should a large-scale disaster like an oil spill ever occur in the region. 

SR3 also operates a wildlife rescue ambulance, which has been refurbished to meet the needs of seals and sea otters instead of men and women. While the vehicle can carry up to about an 800 or 900 pound sea lion, most of the animals SR3 rescues are much smaller than that.

“Harbor seals are the most common patient,” Lahner said. “The bulk of our patients are pups.”

SR3 AmbulanceThe SR3 Sealife Emergency Response Unit can care for an animal up to the size of a 900-pound sea lion (Photo by Kirsten Abel)SR3 rescues about six harbor seals per week, most of which have “stranded,” or been injured or orphaned on or near the shore.
Other animals the SR3 team works with, either by disentangling or by rehabilitating, include sea lions, turtles, whales, and sea otters.
The local killer whale population, listed as an endangered species, is another concern of SR3’s. According to Lahner, only 77 Southern Resident killer whales are alive right now. The EPA states that in 1995, 98 whales made up the group.

“I think a lot of people just aren’t aware of how dire things are,” Lahner said.

Killer whales are “food sharers,” said Lahner, meaning that, for example, if a grandmother whale catches prey she shares it with her children and grandchildren. These kinds of communities are  especially affected by fish shortages, as well as by pollutants and other environmental problems.

WhaleThe SR3 team, in collaboration with Cascadia Research and several other organizations, helps to save a stranded young gray whale on the Washington Coast (NOAA Permit No. 18786)Some may ask, why do we care? Besides the adorability factor, why should we spend money to rehabilitate individual animals? Aren’t there enough harbor seals around the Puget Sound?

SR3 doesn’t save marine animals simply for the welfare of the animal itself. In fact, one of the organization’s main goals is surveillance, Lahner said.

Marine wildlife can tell us a lot about changes in the environment. They can indicate the presence of new or increasing pollutants in the water. They can alert us to diseases that could eventually come to affect humans.

“They’re going to tell us if there’s an outbreak of a new toxin. They’re going to magnify what’s going on,” Lahner said. “It’s kind of a canary in a coal mine thing.”

So while the baby sea otter Lahner and her team work around the clock to save is cute, it’s also extremely informative.
SR3 currently employs five full-time staff members. The organization also has a complete board and depends on the work of many volunteers.

“We  are 100 percent fueled and funded by donations,” Lahner said.

According to Lahner, the best way to help out is to spread the word about SR3. The website (www.sealifer3.org) includes a place to donate to the organization and a page where you can find out more about how to report an injured or stranded animal. (Step one: stay at least 100 yards away!)

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