How do you help a 2,000 pound wild animal that’s entangled?

Entangled sea lion. SeaDoc photo.

Entangled sea lion. SeaDoc photo.

When a sea lion gets a plastic packing strap stuck around its neck, it’s not a pretty sight. The animal doesn’t die right away. As the seal grows, the strap gets tighter and tighter. Eventually the animal can starve or strangle.

For almost 2 years, SeaDoc and collaborators from the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the Whale Museum, the Vancouver Aquarium, and the Seattle Aquarium have been working with NOAA Fisheries to create a plan for responding to entangled sea lions. Darting a 2,000-pound animal that isn’t feeling well and is precariously perched on rocks near the water is not an easy undertaking. In fact, without the right plan and expertise, it’s fraught with risks for both the animal and the people trying to help it.

Fortunately our collaborators worked hard to come up with a safe protocol, one that has been field tested over a dozen times in Canada under the leadership of the Vancouver Aquarium.

So when an entangled sea lion was spotted last month near the south end of Lopez Island, NOAA gave permission for an intervention. We mobilized an international team with veterinarians from both the Seattle and Vancouver aquariums, and technical staff from the Stranding Network and Whale Museum, with additional law enforcement help from NOAA and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

During the morning slack tide, we found the entangled animal hauled out on the rocks, but weren’t able to dart it successfully. In the afternoon we returned to search again, and were surprised to see a different entangled animal. We were able to dart, recover, and release this animal after determining that the entangling material had broken off, leaving a nasty wound behind.

Most of SeaDoc’s veterinary work is at the level of species or populations, but in this case we’re trying to help individual animals that have been injured by human garbage. It is an animal welfare issue but it also is providing skills that could benefit an endangered species entangled in our trash.

Videos of prior disentanglement responses carried out by the Vancouver Aquarium: