By Dr. Becker
This is a sad lesson in what can happen when a perhaps well-intentioned but uninformed person comes upon a wild animal and thinks it needs saving.
Recently in the Rye, New Hampshire area, a woman took a week-old, still nursing harbor seal pup off the beach and delivered it to the Seacoast Science Center in a misguided effort to help it. That pup is now orphaned and being looked after by officials at the University of New England.
Around the same time, a second, even younger pup was spotted on the beach and was being monitored by officials from the New England Aquarium. When they first noticed the pup, it was a healthy weight, alert and active. Sadly, the baby died two days later, probably because humans got too close and caused it too much stress, according to aquarium senior biologist Katie Pugliares.
“The human desire is to help the best we can,” Pugliares said. “Unfortunately ... people are not very familiar with their natural behavior.”
Why are beachgoers ignoring posted signs and federal laws regarding seals?
Mother seals typically leave their pups on the sand while they go in search of food. They use sounds and smells to locate their offspring when they return from hunting. The scent of humans in the area can prevent a mother seal from reuniting with her pup. And according to Pugliares, “If the mother did return to the pup at night, it returned to a pup that was in a very poor state.”
New England Aquarium officials are trying to make the public understand the need to stay at least 150 feet away from seals. (This is a federal law.) Signs are posted at all the beaches in the area, but many visitors ignore them, as evidenced by parents taking and posting pictures of their kids posing with seal pups.
Ashley Stokes, who works for the Seacoast Science Center keeping track of local seal sightings and posting warning signs on stakes in the ground around young seals, says it’s normal to see people walk up to the signs, read them, and walk on past and right up to the seals. “It's disappointing. We handed out fliers all day long,” Stokes said. “You want to give Mother Nature a chance to do her thing.”
If you encounter seals on the beach, keep a distance of at least 150 feet.
The Rye area experienced an avian flu epidemic in 2011 that killed over 100 seals. According to Tony LaCasse of the New England Aquarium, it’s especially important for children to keep their distance from seal pups, because both have immature immune systems and diseases can be passed between humans and seals. LaCasse makes the point that the beach is not a petting zoo, and seals are wild animals.
Also according to LaCasse, the presence of more seals on the beach is a testament to successful conservation efforts since the passage in 1972 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Mother seals prefer to shelter their pups in more protected areas, but baby seals that still need their mothers are becoming an increasingly common site at beaches in the area. To protect the health and well being of both animals and humans, it’s extremely important that beachgoers learn how to behave around seals.
To learn more about seals you may encounter on land, read the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) FAQs page.
Harbor seals and pups enjoying the beach in La Jolla, CA: