SAN PEDRO, Calif. — Firefighters may have gotten a handle on the Alisal Fire, but a few of its victims are still recovering from it. Some of the most unlikely victims are marine mammals.
Amber Becerra, president and CEO of the Marine Mammal Care Center, said that on the day the Alisal Fire broke out, three animals had to be evacuated from a sister center in Santa Barbara called the Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institution, or CIMWI. The center staff was being evacuated, and streets in the area were being closed one by one. The team from MMCC had mere minutes to spare to rush the animals out before the 101 freeway closed down entirely.
“They had three animals at the time, a California sea lion, an elephant seal and a northern fur seal,” Becerra said. “And then we immediately rushed out there to Ventura, met them and picked these animals up and brought them to safety.”
Footage from the evacuation shows the animals being coaxed to transfer cages, some bewildered and one looking distressed. Becerra can be heard encouraging them in the background, “Hey buddy, you’re safe now!”
When we think of who is impacted by a wildfire, we almost never think of the marine wildlife because most falsely believe they’re safe in the water. But the director of hospital operations, Dr. Lauren Palmer, explains that breathing in smoke and ash is bad for all species, including marine wildlife.
“Lung function is the same across species and so if the animal is inhaling smoke whether they be terrestrial or marine mammal, animals on the beach, that’s not going to be healthy for them,” Palmer said. “There really was no choice but to move them.”
Moving marine mammals is no easy task as human and animal safety must be taken. There must be limited physical contact, leading to a song and dance of coaxing and coercing with treats. But more so, because marine mammals are very prone to stress and can fall ill from being too stressed. For animals in rescue facilities such as MMCC and CIMWI, who are there because they’re already suffering from a physical ailment, stress can make things much worse. One of the elephant seals evacuated from CIMWI that day took a turn after the move.
“He was emaciated, malnourished, dehydrated, already in really poor condition, even when he arrived at CIMWI,” Becerra explained. “But then obviously the stress of a fire evacuation rapidly, that is going to cause even more stress to these animals.”
The dedicated staff at MMCC and CIMWI knew leaving the animals there was not an option, and it was worth the risk of inducing stress from moving them. Although it’s been several weeks since the evacuation, all three animals remain at MMCC and will be there for the near future. Rehabilitating wildlife is a long-haul process, but Becerra and her team are determined to give the animals a second shot at life.
“Assuming they all recover, the plan is to release them back to their ocean home,” she said, just as one of the California sea lions barked behind her.