Every seal has a unique story.
We tell their story while giving them a second chance at life.
SRI receives reports of sick, injured or orphaned seals from caring members of the public from across Ireland. Once reported, our team will contact a trained Rescue Network Volunteers in the area who will complete an on-location assessment of the seals condition. If the seal is deemed to be in urgent need of care, and the mother has not been seen in the area for an extended period of time, our volunteers will transport the pup back to our rehab facility in Courtown, Co. Wexford so medical care can begin as the first step to return them healthy back to the wild.
Rescue: Orphaned, sick and injured Common and Grey seal pups are rescued from around the whole coast of the Republic of Ireland. We rely on members of the public who come across pups in distress and our amazing team of coast wide Rescue Volunteer Network to bring rescue and transport the pups to our centre for care.
Arriving at the Centre: Having often travelled long distances, great care is taken to stabilise newly admitted pups. A full medical assessment of its condition is undertaken and an emergency treatment plan is quickly devised. We record every detail about the pup including, the location and people involved in the rescue, its injuries, illnesses, weight, temperature, physical condition and behaviour. The next step is to clean, treat and bandage any wounds or injuries; and then hydrate the pup, as it may have been days since it was fed by its mother. Antibiotics and/or anti-parasitic treatments, as well as pain medication or any other medicines are prescribed as soon as possible. Great care is taken to minimise stress on the animal at all times.
Intensive Care & Quarantine: The first 48 hours are crucial. Once the pup is hydrated and treatment has commenced, the pup is moved to a safe and quiet, quarantine unit that is out of public view. Here, the pup is protected from the weather and noise, and its body temperature can stabilise with the help of an infrared heat lamp. Intensive care allows pups to rest, recuperate and gain strength. During this fragile stage, the pup is monitored, checked regularly, and tube-fed every 3 – 4 hours. Gradually transitioning from simple electrolyte fluids to nutrient-packed fish soup, we determine the appropriate volume of fluid based on a percentage of the pups body weight. All pups remain in intensive care, until we are certain they have stabilised and are free from infection and viruses, this prevents contamination throughout the facility.
Kennels: Once the seal pup has been stabilised and graduated from intensive care, they are moved to one of our specially designed kennels which are equipped with a bath for learning to swim and eat fish, a heat mat to aid them in maintaining their body temperature, and a public viewing window so visitors can observe them. All pups are weighed weekly which provides valuable, low impact insight for monitoring their progress. They are still closely monitored, however priority is to start “fish school” to teach them to eat solid food on their own so we no longer need to handle them. Some seals are slower learners than others, and this stage can sometimes take weeks!
Stages of Feeding:
As pups move through the different stages of rehabilitation, different feeding techniques are used to ensure they quickly reach independence with skills needed for the wild.
Tube feeding: Many pups have never even seen, let alone eaten fish, when they arrive at our facility therefore they may not recognise it as food! Most have very sensitive digestive systems as they have only had mother’s milk at this stage; often they have not learned to swallow whole foods yet. In order to get crucial nutrition into the pups, we must feed them a finely blended formula we call fish soup.
Fish Soup Ingredients:
-Finely blended herring
-Vitamins & Minerals
The pups are fed using a soft, rubber, tube which is passed down their oesophagus, into the stomach. As unpleasant as it may seem, this is the only way to get critical fluids, medications and nutrition into severely ill, young pups. Our fully trained animal care staff are responsible for tubing the pups. They are trained to minimise stress and contact with the animals. At first, pups are fed this way every 4 hours, with pups in critical condition receiving additional feeds throughout the night. A fresh ‘play fish’ is always left in their kennel to stimulate curiosity. Aggressive behaviour towards this fish shows they are ready for the next stage of feeding.
Force feeding: The next step towards independence involves force feeding the pups whole herring. Depending on the age and condition of the seal this process varies; but is normally begun at the age of weaning (3-4 weeks old). The handler gently opens the seals mouth and encourages the seal to eat a whole fish – this sometimes requires the fish to be pushed into the mouth and throat and the seals natural swallowing reflex follows. Generally, force feeding is not required for long as the pups quickly realise that the fish is food and eagerly eat by themselves. Sometimes this process can be skipped altogether as many pups will voluntarily eat fish straight away!
Fish School: Using fish tied to strings we imitate moving prey which stimulates their natural instincts and introduces pups to more natural hunting conditions.
Hand feeding: Once the seals have a taste for fish we encourage them to take the fish voluntarily. By hand feeding them in their salt water bath, they become accustomed to catching and eating fish underwater. From this point most seals no longer need to be restrained, which makes it easier for the animal care team too!
Free feeding: The much anticipated, final stage of feeding and a sign of developing independence. This process takes longer with Common seals because, in wild conditions they learn this behaviour from their mothers. Grey seals on the other hand, are weaned relatively early form their mothers, and are left to fend for themselves. Once they have moulted their lanugo fur, hunger drives them to explore the sea where instinct guides them to hunt. For this reason, Grey seals are generally fast learners. Often, moulted grey seal pups admitted to our facility, voluntarily eat whole fish straight away. We encourage slow learning pups by incorporating ‘fish school’ in to their feeding regime. By tying fish to the end of string, we can stimulate greater interest from the pups. They get the hang of things once they learn to bite the fish. Once the pups are confidently eating by themselves with no assistance from the animal care team, they are ready to progress to the nursery pools!
Rehabilitation Pools: The pools are the final stage of the rehabilitation process. Once the pups have reached a certain weight, are sufficiently feeding on their own, and are free of illness, disease and injuries they graduate into the pools. Here, they are able to exercise, develop muscle mass, and learn to swim and dive. They also develop important social skills and competitive behaviour, as they compete for their share of food with the other pups of the same species and similar body condition. Since we cannot feed the seals live fish, this social dynamic provides a crucial opportunity to mimic wild conditions and develop natural behaviours needed for survival in the wild.
In order to prepare the pups for life back in the wild, human contact is kept to a minimum at this stage. We need the seals to develop a healthy fear of humans for their own safety. We continue to weigh the pups weekly, until they reach the ideal size to be released. During this stage, we tag one of their rear flippers with a plastic ID tag with a unique identification number for our records. This allows us to gather ongoing information after release, as we are able to identify them if ever spotted again!
We have 4 pools at the centre:
- The Nursery Pool is small and shallow, for when the pups first move outside.
- The Rock & Physio Pools are larger and deeper, for more advanced pups.
- The Pre-Release Pool is our largest pool and the last stage of rehabilitation. It is enclosed in tall fencing to minimise human interaction for the final few weeks before release.
At Last… RELEASE!
Once the pups have reached their target weights (30 kg for commons and 35 kg for greys) and are fit, healthy and exhibiting competitive behaviour in the pools, it is finally time to release them back into the wild! Whenever possible, we strive to release the seals on the same coastline where they were originally found. We personally invite the rescuers, adopters and valued SRI members to join us for the big day – a rewarding and hard-earned experience!