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Leave stranded seal pups alone, Puget Sound officials say

A little seal pup lies on a beach on the Seaplane Base in Oak Harbor. This is the time of year when mothers begin giving birth to pups and biologists are hoping to get the word out for the public to stay away. - Heather Shelton photo
A little seal pup lies on a beach on the Seaplane Base in Oak Harbor. This is the time of year when mothers begin giving birth to pups and biologists are hoping to get the word out for the public to stay away.
— image credit: Heather Shelton photo

Some things you just never forget and for Oak Harbor resident Heather Shelton, watching a fuzzy little seal pub trying to nurse on her boot is definitely one of them.

The heartwarming scene took place on a beach on the Seaplane Base last week. Shelton was walking her dog with her husband when they scared up two large bald eagles.

Thinking they had interrupted the birds’ meal, the couple quickly realized the raptors hadn’t been eating anything. At least not yet. The focus of their attention was a fuzzy little seal pup that was very much alive.

Initially, Shelton said they kept their distance but the adorable little creature, which still had its umbilical cord, seal-hopped over to them and their resolve melted. Unable to resist any longer, they began petting it. Then it started suckling her boot.

It’s a heartwarming scene and similar ones unfold on beaches throughout Puget Sound every year. Unfortunately, such encounters can be detrimental to both seal pups and humans alike.

“This is a natural phenomenon,” said Matt Klope, a wildlife biologist and volunteer with the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network. “The best thing to do is to just leave it alone.”

First and foremost, seal pups may appear to have been abandoned but they have not. They are just too small to accompany their mothers, so have been temporarily left on the beach to give mom a chance to hunt. The reprieve also gives the pups the essential rest they need to grow.

Petting seal pups will not cause mothers to abandon them, said Klope, but they really should not be approached for safety reasons as bites can cause what it known as Seal Finger.

Believed to be a bacterial infection, it results in severe inflammation of the fingers and is extremely painful. It was once treated by amputation but can now be treated with antibiotics. Dogs can also be infected, so it’s important to keep them away as well.

“I can tell you from personal experience, you do not want to be bit,” Klope said. He was once nicked by a seal pup and over the next three months, his fingers swelled and became so painful that he couldn’t even put his hand in his pocket much less use a pencil.

According to Klope, eagles won’t attack a live seal so people shouldn’t be too concerned about predation. In the Sheltons’ case, he said the birds were almost certainly waiting around to see if it would die.

While it’s always best to steer clear of pups, even if they approach you, the Sheltons reported the finding to the authorities, which is the right thing to do, Klope said.

Some people shoo the pups back into the water or worse take them home, thinking they are helping. That can be a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is punishable by civil penalty, fine or criminal prosecution.

Within a short time of the Sheltons’ call, Klope and U.S. Navy officials were on the scene and began monitoring the pup. He said it was gone by the next morning, presumably reclaimed by its mother.

To report a found seal pup, call the stranding network at 1-866-ORCANET. If there is a need, a volunteer will post signs warning people away or even stand guard themselves, if necessary.

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