Tough Tiger is what the Slide Ranch teachers named this elephant seal pup because, despite being so badly malnourished, he was doing his best to survive. Near the turn of the 20th century, there were about 100 elephant seals on the West Coast. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, their numbers have rebounded. However, without more action to prevent the pollution, overfishing and global warming that is decimating their food supply in the ocean, Tough Tiger's condition will be shared by more of his kind.
Slide Ranch educates children about farming, but our bigger mission is to connect them to nature by experiencing the ranch, its wildlands and beaches, and the animals that live there. We help kids learn that wild animals in the ocean and on land depend on the choices we make. The importance of that mission was awfully clear when, one Saturday evening in April, Slide Ranch Teacher-in-Residence Silas and his friend Andy found a seal pup on our north beach. The pup seemed lethargic, so they reached out to The Marine Mammal Center’s Rescue Hotline (415-289-SEAL) when they returned from their hike. The dispatcher asked them a series of questions to confirm that the animal was an elephant seal pup and asked Silas to call back in the morning if the pup was still there.
Sunday morning, our Garden Manager Kelly returned to the beach to check on the pup. She was afraid it had died, but the pup craned its neck when she approached. Kelly made a series of follow-up calls to TMMC. Because TMMC is short on human power and has to limit visits to truly distressed animals, the dispatcher asked her to send a picture to help the Center determine the pup's condition. When Kelly and Silas went down to take the picture, they found the pup lying on its side, revealing an emaciated ribcage that showed that it was very ill. They sent the picture to the Center, who dispatched two volunteers for the rescue.
Slide Ranch staff went down to the beach to monitor the animal until the volunteers arrived. The seal was very underweight, but transferring it to a carrier and bringing it up the rocky and steep North Beach Trail still took a lot of cooperation. Once they had loaded the animal safely into TMMC's vehicle, Joel, one of the volunteers, asked us to name the pup. We called him Tough Tiger. Later, the Center informed us that Tough Tiger weighed in at only 96 pounds. A healthy newborn pup can weigh 60-75 pounds or more, and a healthy weaned pup can weigh as much as 250 pounds! It's not yet clear whether Tough Tiger was separated prematurely from its mother or if the pup became undernourished once at sea by itself. We are hoping for a healthy recovery for Tough Tiger, who was a joy to encounter.
Tough Tiger's condition is a sad sign of how a changing ocean is painfully impacting marine mammals. TMMC has seen a record-breaking number of stranded sea mammals this year. At the beginning of March, more than 1,200 California sea lions had been admitted to rehabilitation facilities across the state. Other marine mammal species, like elephant seals, have also been impacted. Experts believe that warmer waters, overfishing, pollution and climate change have combined to damage fish populations near the Pacific Coast. This is not good news for marine mammals, who rely on those fish to survive. TMMC is doing everything it can to rehabilitate and release every animal it is able to rescue, as well as collecting valuable information about our ocean and its wildlife as the animals are treated.
Marika Bergsund, Slide Ranch’s Executive Director, connected the elephant seal pup’s distress to Slide Ranch’s mission to educate about preserving the environment. “Our purpose here at Slide Ranch is never made more clear than when we see the direct impact of neglect for the environment. While the elephant seal population has made a rebound along the California coast due to the Endangered Species Act, we still need to see laws that prevent ocean and air pollution that are destroying the habitats for these endangered species, and ultimately for ourselves. These laws will be made by concerned citizens who have connected the well-being of the earth with their own well-being. Every child that engages at Slide Ranch learns about that connection.”
Elephant seals were hunted to the brink of extinction, primarily for their blubber, which was used for lamp oil. By 1910, it is estimated that there were less than 100 elephant seals in the world. Today, the northern elephant seal population is approximately 150,000, with 124,000 found in California waters. It is probably near the size it was before they were over-hunted. It is a success story we want to preserve and see for other threatened and endangered species.
If you encounter a sea mammal you think is distressed, do not make direct contact. Keep other people and dogs at a safe distance from the animal. If the animal is tagged, note the color and location of the tag, and see if you can safely read the number. Take a photo showing signs of distress, and call The Marine Mammal Center at 415-289-SEAL.