The Alaska facility giving aquatic animals a ‘second chance at life’

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When Pushki was brought to his new home on 12 November, he was scared, dangerously skinny and severely dehydrated. The two-week-old sea otter pup had been found crying on the beach in Homer, Alaska, seemingly having been separated from his mother. He needed help, fast.

Now, nearly a month later, he’s running the show at the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC), an aquatic rehabilitation, scientific research and education facility in Seward, Alaska. The young sea otter, whose name captures his mischievous spirit (Pushki is another name for the Alaskan plant known as a cow parsnip, which can sometimes cause burns), has been keeping his veterinary team busy with his playful baby antics.

“He’s incredibly lucky to have this second chance at life,” said Lisa Hartman, the ASLC husbandry director. “If we weren’t here, he likely wouldn’t be either.”

But earlier this year, the research center seemed like the one in trouble. The ASLC is the only facility in the state that rehabilitates aquatic animals, and has a zoo and aquarium that are open to the public; in a normal summer, the center sees more than 160,000 visitors, largely from out of state. This year – because the vast majority of Alaska’s summer tourists come in on cruise ships, all of which were canceled due to the pandemic – it saw only a fourth of it normal numbers.

The future of the 22-year-old center – and the more than 4,000 creatures it houses – appeared uncertain. On 13 July, the ASLC announced they would be forced to close permanently unless they were able to raise $2m by the end of September.

Their plea resonated: by 1 October they had raised $4m, over half of which came from individual donors. Tara Riemer, CEO and president, said while they’re not yet operating at their prior level, at least they will remain open and be able to continue caring for their animals and conducting important research through the winter.

With several species of seals, a few sea lions, myriad fish and an assortment of marine birds, the ASLC has made a name for itself as a bustling aquarium in small-town Seward (population: 2,700). But it also punches well above its weight in the global conservation and science arenas.

The animals cared for at the center – some of which, like Pushki, have just been rescued and others which have been living there for much longer – have helped inform the greater aquatic and arctic research.

One of the center’s newest studies is looking at ice seals, who historically haven’t been studied as rigorously by the scientific community as some of their aquatic peers. Studying the seals, as the ice they reside on melts due to global warming, helps give researchers an understanding of “what’s happening with our environment and our ecosystems in real time”, according to Hartman.

“We’ve been able to gather information that nobody else has been able to gather before,” said Hartman.

Their longest-running study began more than 20 years ago, when Steller sea lions became listed as endangered. By examining a nearby rookery over multiple generations, researchers have been able to study what threatens their existence. In the time since, they have learned about what makes for a successful breeding period for the Steller sea lions and what are some of the biggest obstacles for the juveniles to make it to adulthood.

“You get an incredibly different perspective by watching them over so many years,” said John Maniscalco, the lead scientist of the study since its inception. “A lot of studies don’t last this long. You’re not going to get that understanding of how things are changing in one year versus five, 10 or 20 years.”

The center is the only facility in the state capable of rehabilitating aquatic animals – the few other animal facilities in the state have a different focus. The closest facility that could take sick or hurt Alaska animals is a 44-hour drive (or several hours of driving and multiple flight connections) away in Vancouver, Canada, and getting permits to export animals is challenging. For animals rescued in poor shape, waiting that long is often not an option.

The ASLC is also the only oiled wildlife response center in the state – meaning that, in the event of an oil spill, they had be tasked with organizing animal clean-up efforts.

The ASLC hopes to empower other centers to take action if and when animals need to be rehabilitated: in recent years, the ASLC has started training professionals at zoos and aquariums nationwide on how to respond to animals that have encountered oil spills. They’re the only place in the country that offers that training.

“If we were not here there would not be a resource to help train people, nor would there be a group of trained professionals locally that can immediately be deployed,” Hartman said. “Those first 72 hours are critical in getting your hands on those animals and starting treatment.”

Whenever they can’t release an animal back into the wild, either due to regulations (NOAA doesn’t allow ice seals to be returned, for example) or because they missed out on learning necessary survival skills from mom (as is the case for Pushki), they’re sent to another aquarium or zoo with a goal of furthering that conservation message well beyond their state boundaries.

Caring for a sea otter like Pushki is one of the most expensive endeavors the ASLC undergoes; it costs the center $25,000 a month to look after and rehabilitate him, largely due to their entirely shellfish diet. In the coming months, the ASLC will look for aquatic facilities elsewhere to house Pushki for the rest of his life.

But, Hartman argues it’s worth it, because saving Pushki, and others like him, helps influence future generations to care about the world around them. Pushki will soon join the legions of other ASLC graduates who now, in some small way, teach millions around the world about the importance of healthy ecosystems and being good caretakers of the planet.

“For me, the most critical thing about the Alaska SeaLife Center is about developing a sense of empathy and care for our environment and our world and the animals we share it with,” Hartman said. “We have the ability to connect people. To see what is happening in our world and try to inspire change.”

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