Animals that enter Rehabilitation at the Alaska SeaLife Center are diseased, injured, or have been abandoned and are malnourished. Wild animals will use their strength to appear healthy as long as possible. By the time animals strand, they are usually weak and underweight.
However, not all animals on the beach are always in need of assistance. Animals sometimes haul out to rest or molt and pups are left for extended periods while the mothers go out to sea and forage. A designated observation time may be implemented, depending on the age and species of the animal. It is best to verify the situation and call the ASLC first before the animal is picked up.
Many animals that strand or are distressed are not in local areas. If the animal is in obvious distress or is injured, then plans need to be made for transportation to the ASLC. This may include an airline flight, boat trip, or driving long distances to pick up the animal.
When a sick or injured animal arrives at ASLC, it is placed in quarantine to isolate it from other animals at the Center. This minimizes the risk of exposing the Center's resident animals to disease. A veterinarian will then perform a physical exam and prepare a treatment plan. The Center has a fully equipped veterinary staff and animal hospital that includes an x-ray machine with darkroom, surgery room, hematology (blood analysis) lab, and a clinical chemistry lab.
Data gathered from animals in rehab provides valuable information to scientists who study them. Researchers have an opportunity to establish baseline data for sick, injured, and juvenile animals, and learn more about parasites and diseases that may affect marine mammals. They also broaden their knowledge of blood and tissue chemistries. All of this information provides important references for analyzing samples collected from the wild.
Treatment commonly begins by restoring fluid and electrolytes. No food should be offered to an animal until adequate hydration has been restored (this usually takes up to 24 hours). A feeding tube is used when administering fluids or liquefied food orally to a bird or mammal. Small, dehydrated, weaned seals may be stomach tube-fed a fish formula after an initial rehydration period. Once the animal is stable, then fish may be offered.
If a bacterial infection is discovered, the animal may be given antibiotics. If x-rays reveal a broken bone, it may be set and splinted. Surgery may be required in the event of a serious injury. Sometimes an animal that enters rehab is considered in "critical" condition, and staff must monitor the animal under a 24-hour watch until it is stable. During the rehabilitation process, it is necessary to maintain very accurate records. Size, weight, temperature, overall appearance, diet, medications, behavior, and even bowel movements are all recorded on a daily basis.
An animal will remain at ASLC anywhere from a few days to several months. Once a marine animal is stable, increasing levels of seawater may be slowly introduced to the marine mammal or bird. Water levels will be determined by the level of comfort and progress of each animal. After a 30-day quarantine time is served and the animal is adequately conditioned, it will be moved to a larger pool. Social interaction is encouraged with other animals of the same species in rehab. This supports a more natural setting and behavior, ensures environmental stimulation and refines competitive foraging skills. Feeding a variable diet is important to discourage the animal depending on one source of food type. Some types of food at the ASLC may include herring, capelin, salmon, and squid.
Rehabilitated animals are given a physical exam before release. This is to ensure that an animal is healthy enough to cope with conditions in the wild and not put the population at risk by introducing pathogens. An animal must be considered disease-free to the best of our knowledge and each species must meet certain criteria before a release is considered. These include a diminishing dependence on humans, socialization within its own species and exposure to environmental stimulation. The location of release should allow for a reasonable chance to meet with the same species and have an adequate food supply.
Once an animal is deemed healthy enough for release, it is given a final physical exam. Staff implants a microchip under the skin and attaches a flipper tag, both of which can help scientists identify the animal if it is ever recaptured or found dead. Some animals receive either a radio or satellite telemetry tag, so scientists may monitor the location of the animal. Radio and satellite tags attached to rehabilitated animals help researchers learn more about the behavior of animals in the wild, providing a platform on which to test new tracking technology and evaluate and improve the success of rehabilitation efforts.