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Team works to free ‘Willy’

Posted: Friday, Apr 2nd, 2010

A rescue team uses crowder boards to keep sea lions inside a special capture cage at Port Dock 1 on Yaquina Bay late Wednesday afternoon. The cage is designed to lure in animals entangled in packing bands, nets and other materials to isolate them so rescuers can isolate them to make removal efforts safer for both animal and humanitarians. (Photo by Terry Dillman)

Experimental cage at Port Dock 1 used to help save entangled sea lion

An Oregon State University (OSU) team fresh off the historic March 18 rescue of a sea lion tangled in a trawl net and trapped on the rocks at Sea Lion Caves made history again late Wednesday afternoon at Port Dock 1 on the Newport Bayfront.

A five-man team from OSU, the Oregon Coast Aquarium (OCA), Animal Medical Clinic of Newport, and the Port of Newport successfully removed a plastic packing band from the neck of another young sea lion lured into a custom-built “capture cage” placed at the dock in early March. The cage served its purpose to perfection - temporarily sequestering the sea lion and three companions so the rescue team could untangle the lone one bedeviled by the band around its neck.

Jim Rice, who coordinates the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, said this particular sea lion is the “poster child” whose photo they had plastered all over town to warn folks about the dangers of tossing trash into the ocean that could potentially harm sea critters.

“This is the one animal we have monitored for more than a year,” Rice told the News-Times Thursday, noting that he had a photo of the lion dating back to September 2008.” A lot of locals were familiar with it, and even had a nickname for it - Willy. So you could say we freed Willy.”

While things went relatively smoothly for this first-of-its-kind attempt, the task wasn’t exactly easy, taking about 90 minutes or so to play out in front of a growing crowd of onlookers at the dock located directly behind Port Dock One Restaurant.

Knowing the purpose of the cage and recognizing Willy, a restaurant employee alerted Rice to the sea lion’s presence.

“It isn’t unusual to observe California sea lions with various forms of entanglement - especially plastic packing bands wrapped tightly around the neck, cutting into the animal’s skin, blubber and muscle,” Rice said. “But despite these animals’ proximity to a public viewing pier, they are not nearly as accessible to would-be rescuers as they may appear.”

Watching the spectacle unfold proved that assertion.

Coordinated effort

Rice assembled his team - fellow MMI associate Thomas Follett; Jim Burke, director of animal husbandry at OCA; and veterinarian Dan Lewer from animal Medical Clinic - who rode to the dock aboard the Port of Newport harbormaster’s boat piloted by Jim Durkee. As they maneuvered toward the cage, two of Willy’s companions shot through the open gate and into the water, with Willy close behind.

To create a barrier between themselves and the sea lions and keep the rest from escaping, the team used plywood “crowder boards” at the front of the boat. Lewer administered light sedation to slow the agitated and frightened Willy down, and eventually Follett snipped the band and carefully plucked it away using a hooked knife at the end of a pole.

The crowd cheered the successful venture.

“We typically don’t have this opportunity with entangled animals,” said Rice. “They’re typically able to flee and escape a would-be rescuer. Because entangled animals are generally active and defensive, options for removing debris are very limited. Sea lions will not tolerate close approach, and unrestrained anesthesia is deemed too dangerous for the animals since a sea lion injected with drugs by a pole or dart would likely flee to the water only to subsequently drown.”

Rice said the plastic band they removed is the kind commonly used to pack baitfish, and it had left a nasty looking gash in Willy’s neck that Rice said would heal in time. Lewer administered a counter-sedative, and the team waited 15 minutes to make sure the critter would recover.

They watched in triumph as Willy swam out to the nearby breakwater, climbed onto the rocks, and eyed them suspiciously as they floated by for a final look.

Rice said they were pleased with how well the operation turned out.

“We had a lot of unknowns going in,” he said. “We had worked it lour in theory, but not in practice.”

In this case, practice was nearly perfect.

Collaborative venture

A grant from the Oregon Animal Health Foundation/Oregon Veterinary Medical Association provided funding to build the cage, along with support from the OCA, the MMI, OSU, and NOAA’s John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program, which provides support for the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network through the institute.

The Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network is a collaborative volunteer effort to respond to reports of sick or dead marine mammals - including whales, seals and sea lions - and report data about stranding incidents to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Terry Dillman is the assistant editor of the News-Times. Contact him at (541) 265-8571, ext 225, or terrydillman@newportnewstimes.com.

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