10/20/2009 11:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Critters Need Saving Too: Volunteer Marine Mammal Rescue in Malibu


That's me, with a week-old harbor seal pup whose mother has vanished, leaving him stranded and hungry. Cute, huh? And without someone to scoop him up and ferry him to "fish school", he would die the proverbial "slow and agonizing death" from hunger and cold. That's what we do - try to save marine mammals in peril.

Every once in a while, when I am enthusiastically promulgating the need to throw a lifeline to troubled ocean-going wildlife, a lone dissenting voice will pop up with "Shouldn't you be helping humans first?", or another with "Aren't you interfering with the natural order of things?" Valid questions some would say... but are they?

Suggesting that any one form of active philanthropy is superior to others is to wade into a philosophical quagmire from which few emerge unscathed. The clamorous and competing needs of endless unfortunates in the world results in a cacophony of need that we can only solve voice by voice, one at a time, and to each benefactor a cause or causes that speak to his/her deepest heart.

Look at this adorable, emaciated baby sea lion and tell me that you don't think he is deserving of rescue...


You can't, can you? Me neither.

So the "humans first" argument is one that has never held water for me, on any level. For almost five years now, every Saturday finds me patrolling the beaches of Malibu, waiting for the phone call that stirs us to action. Our Marine Mammal Rescue Team operates out of the California Wildlife Center, and we have sole responsibility for a long swath of coastline extending almost to the county line. Our Fearless Leader Cindy Reyes is a trained marine biologist who combines a passion for animals with an encyclopedic knowledge of their habits and needs, and an ability to deal gently with an uninformed and occasionally hostile public (a trait that, in my impatience and zeal, I somehow seem to lack). My fellow volunteers Michael McGehee and Diana Swartz (who in real life work for the Los Angeles Times) bring to the task a shared sense of complete commitment and wacky fun that makes our days together a joy.


But this is serious stuff. Dealing with confused and sometimes angry animals, who may weigh 150 pounds or more and have exponentially greater strength and agility than we, requires caution, planning, and a love of the adrenaline rush. Even the smaller critters are likely to want to take a hasty bite out of you. Safety First is the prime directive, and Cindy enforces it ruthlessly; she will happily show you the scar on her hand, with a cautionary tale of the time she was in too much of a hurry to use gloves... You know that movie "Andre"? Totally bogus, don't be fooled - sea lions are cute, sure, but they're strong and fast and vicious, and will as soon rip your thigh off as look at you. After all, as far as they're concerned, you're the predator, and the best defense is a good offense, right?

So here's the drill, in basic terms: we get a call, be it from law enforcement, lifeguards, or the public at large; we motor on over in the rescue truck and assess the animal; if it is warranted, we then contain and crate the animal, and transport it to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro.

Ah, but the actuality is so much more tumultuous and fascinating and challenging than that bare recitation of facts. Check this out... Imagine first trying to throw a net over a disoriented and scared pregnant sea lion weighing 180 pounds:


Then try to maneuver her into a jumbo dog crate using nothing but wooden boards with handles on the back. Next, picture hoisting that now-220-pound load of shifting, squalling sea lion over a water's-edge outcropping of massive jagged rocks that must be two stories high and 50 yards wide - that's what we did on my birthday one year. Exhilarating and confounding and immensely rewarding barely begins to describe it... and fortunately, everybody on the beach wants to lend a hand!


On the other end of the difficulty scale, there is the three-month-old elephant seal pup who has lost two-thirds of his body weight in two months and is a mere 80 pounds of loose skin and bone, with saucer-like black eyes and a pathetic wail. Just throw a towel over his head, sit on him, and slide him into a crate - no problem. Check it out...


And then recently there was a rare and special rescue, something we volunteers only dream about - a stranded baby dolphin!


Oh I could go on for pages with our tales of derring-do (with the emphasis often on "do" - flying sea lion poop is an ever-present hazard), but I'll leave you with just one more: a yearling sea lion with an entanglement of fishing net so deeply imbedded around his throat that he can barely breathe and cannot swallow, yet is still completely alert and at full strength - a formidable creature to try to overcome. But overcome him we must, if he is to survive. And indeed, I saw him in rehab the other day - feisty and free of entanglement, but with deep, horrifying scars circling his neck that will forever be a mark of his less-benevolent interaction with man.

And that brings me to that other dissenting voice wondering about "interfering with the natural order". It's a bit late for that, is my unhesitant reply; as a species, we have already massively and lamentably and in some cases irrevocably interfered with the natural order, from toxic run-off , oil spills, and tons of trash to over-fishing and global warming. I must insist to that dissenting voice that we who participate in marine mammal rescue are simply trying to provide the most minute offering of balance, trying to somehow create some small palliation of the ill effects resulting from man's heavy footprint since rectification is I fear beyond us now. Yes, in pure Nature, an elephant seal pup who failed to learn to fish successfully would perish, leaving his stronger siblings to survive and strengthen the species; but we are immeasurably distant from pure Nature, and I believe we have an obligation to offset to whatever slight degree we can the negative impacts of our own unfortunate and selfish activities. We have decimated the ocean's food supply and fouled its waters and indeed altered its very behavior, and we must strive to undo or mitigate that heedlessness and hubris in any and every way we can.

So that's why Cindy and Diana and Michael and I are out there every Saturday, nets at the ready, gloves and boards and crates at hand. Oh, and yeah, there's the scenery - beach, Malibu, sand, ocean, movie stars - not too shabby... And as those ads might say, "One dog crate: $85. Three wooden boards: $15. Giving back in the company of good friends: priceless."


CWC and MMCC are non-profit organizations who rely solely upon donations and grants to support their efforts. Please feel free to click here and help!