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Frosty's death a harsh reality for weaned pups

     
We are very disheartened to report the death of seal pup Frosty late Christmas Eve. Frosty had been using the beach at Luna Park for a number of days in a row, entertaining not only volunteers and Seattle-area residents, but visitors from as far away as Paris, France. Aside from one coughing spell early on the 23rd, this chubby and alert male gave all indications of being a healthy pup. He did look a bit thinner Christmas Eve, but returned briskly to the water that evening and we fully expected to see him on Christmas morning.

Around 9pm Saturday night, the hotline received a call of a pup “sleeping peacefully” on the beach. Our responder instead found a dead pup. There, in the darkness, we examined both the pup and the area surrounding him. There were no human footprints or animal tracks to indicate foul play or the presence of a predator nor any obvious cause of death. By the beam of the flashlight, our investigator was saddened by the realization that it was most likely Frosty, who had distinctive markings under his eyes (photo comparisons late that night confirmed the identity). We could see his haulout tracks leading a distance up from the water’s edge to the rocks below the sea wall and his return tracks halfway back to the Sound where he died.

Frosty’s body was delivered to the WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations Unit early Christmas morning for necropsy. Many thanks to volunteer Theresa for making that long, sad drive on a holiday. The subsequent necropsy revealed that Frosty had been foraging very successfully, with a belly of fish bones and parts, and was in fair body condition. However, his lungs and trachea were filled with lungworms and he had pneumonia complicated by a bacterial infection. The biologist was amazed that he had been able to continue to dive and catch fish with such limited lung capacity.

So, why is it that weaned pups are so much more at risk for parasite loads and infection than adult seals? As Dyanna Lambourn, WDFW marine mammal biologist explains, a nursing pup gains temporary or “passive” immunity from mom’s milk which contains a high density of white blood cells. While nursing, if that pup is exposed to a parasite or virus, his body will begin to develop its own antibodies - all the while being stimulated and reinforced by mom’s immunity. Once weaned, however, the pup’s immune system no longer has that support and quickly becomes suppressed. If the now vulnerable pup is exposed to a new worm or virus, he may not be able to build antibodies quickly enough to fight it off or the accompanying complications. As Dyanna says, it is similar to sending your child off to kindergarten, where suddenly she is exposed to a myriad of new “bugs.” But pups weaned at only 4-6 weeks don’t have mom’s milk and protection to nurse them back to health.

Weaned pups face extreme challenges. Learning to catch fish can be a daunting task. As they struggle to learn to forage on their own and become thinner, losing that layer of blubber that provides warmth and energy, opportunistic parasites and viruses can take hold. Contaminants in our polluted waters drastically compound the risk to weaned pups. Storm runoff contaminants, such as pcbs and flame retardants, enter the food chain and further weaken a pup’s already compromised immune system.

As we have stated many times in our public outreach, a seal pup has only a 50% chance of survival the first year. This is why it is so imperative that people allow them the best chance possible - by giving them space on shore to rest and warm up. This simple act can truly be the difference between life and death. The total number of dead pups in West Seattle since August has now reached 16 - while only 5 of those belonged to our database of the 50 pups we’ve watched over this season (Tiny, Bianca, Qayak, Aquarius and now, Frosty). This white little pup Frosty brought a tremendous amount of joy and awareness to all who watched over him this Christmas season.

Fauntleroy ferry dock pup too weak to survive

Seal Sitters and the NOAA Hotline received numerous calls late yesterday morning from concerned folks waiting to board the ferry at the Fauntleroy dock. Our responder found an extremely thin pup at the tide line and established a substantial boundary with yellow tape so that he would not be scared back into the water. We are not sure how long the pup had been at this location, but it was obvious that he was in some serious trouble. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that every pup in need cannot be rescued from the beach and taken for treatment due to limited treatment resources - PAWS can only accommodate ten pups at a time and the rehab is quite lengthy. In dire emergencies, a pup can be flown to Wolf Hollow Wildlife Center in the San Juans courtesy of Kenmore Air. That trip, however, is extremely stressful for any wild animal who already is in a tenuous battle to live. Whenever possible, stranding network volunteers monitor an animal for 24 hours in hopes they will return to the Sound to forage for food in an effort to survive. After observing this horribly thin pup, nicknamed Qakak by neighbors, Seal Sitters intervened mid-afternoon and rescued him from suffering on this beach frequented by people with off-leash dogs - always a danger to seal pups. The pup died en route to PAWS and will be necropsied by WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations’ biologist to determine cause of death.

Thanks to the kayakers who went well out of their way to launch further up the beach. They realized that a small inconvenience to humans can often be the difference between life and death to a resting baby animal. Many kudos to those caring adults and kids.

On a brighter note, Sandy, the small pup rescued from another West Seattle beach, is doing well at PAWS and could be our first success story of this season. Early in the past two seasons, we have had terribly small pups who have struggled with no mom around. It is a tough statistic that only 50% of pups make it to their first year and nature can be pretty harsh at times - all the more reason that they need to rest. Take heart that soon, we will have some fat little pups who have been successfully weaned in the rookeries visiting our beaches!
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