Each seal has a unique story.
We tell that 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 all across Ireland.
Once reported, our team will contact our trained Rescue Network Volunteers in the area who will complete an on-location assessment of the seal’s condition. If the seal is deemed to be in urgent need of care, or the mother has not been seen in the area for an extended period of time, our volunteers will transport the pup to our seal hospital facility in Courtown, Co. Wexford so medical care can begin as the first step to return them healthy back to the wild.
Click the image above to watch what happens behind the scenes!
Orphaned, sick, starving 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 to report seals to us, and our amazing team of coast-wide Rescue Volunteer Network to rescue and transport the pups to our centre for care.
It is illegal to touch or disturb seals meaning if a seal is found, a safe distance of at least 100 metres away needs to be adhered to until an assessment is made of the seal’s condition. Only our trained volunteers have permission to handle seals, as they are dangerous wild animals that will bite when they feel threatened, and the safety of both the public and the seals are our main priority.
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.
In every patient admitted, the seal is undoubtedly dehydrated from illness or starvation and it is imperative to hydrate the pup on admission to the centre either via stomach tube, subcutaneous fluids or intravenous drip. Once the pup is more stable after fluids and a rest we will then clean, treat and bandage any wounds or injuries. 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 and Quarantine
The first 48 hours are crucial.
Once the pup is hydrated and treatment has commenced, the pup stays in our 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 closely monitored, checked regularly, and tube-fed every 3 – 4 hours. Gradually transitioning from simple electrolyte fluids to the nutrient-packed fish soup which we determine the appropriate volume of fluid based on a percentage of the pups body weight.
While in ICU any treatments of wounds and injuries continue and initial courses of medications are completed while in this stage. All pups remain in intensive care until we are certain they have stabilised and are gaining strength and weight, and are free from infection and viruses, this prevents contamination throughout the facility to other seals.
Once the seal pup has been stabilised and we are happy they are healing well, are bright and alert and beginning to gain weight, they graduate from intensive care, and are moved to one of our specially designed hospital 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
- public viewing window so visitors can observe them safely.
All pups are weighed weekly which provides valuable, low impact insight for monitoring their progress. They are still closely monitored, and our 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.
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, which replicates the mother’s milk as closely as possible and helps the pups gain much-needed weight.
In some cases, older pups that have come in due to injury or parasites, already know how to eat fish, and we may only be required to tube feed these pups electrolyte fluids initially to keep them alive. As they begin to feel better and grow stronger they will often start eating by themselves again meaning we don’t need to tube feed them fish soup and they can progress much faster through rehabilitation compared to pups that have come in before weaning age.
Fish Soup Ingredients
- Finely blended herring
- Salmon Oil
- 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 complete the tube feeding quickly 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.
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 seal’s 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! Often this process can be skipped altogether as many pups will voluntarily eat fish straight away!
Once the seals have a taste for fish we encourage them to take the fish voluntarily.
By hand feeding them in their saltwater bath, they become accustomed to catching and eating fish underwater. From this point most seals no longer need to be restrained, which is much less stressful for the pup and makes it easier for the animal care team too!
It is against the law to feed live animals to each other in Ireland, so using sustainably sourced fish tied to strings, we imitate moving prey. This stimulates the pup’s natural instincts to chase fish and introduces them to more natural hunting conditions.
In some cases, hand feeding and the fish school can be skipped altogether, particularly with older seals that have already been hunting in the wild, as they will self feed quickly once feeling better and their appetite returns.
Free feeding is the much anticipated, final stage of feeding and a sign of developing independence.
This process generally takes longer with Harbour Seals because, in wild conditions, they learn this behaviour from their mothers as they will swim soon after birth and watch her hunt for several weeks.
Grey seals, on the other hand, stay ashore during their first few weeks until they are weaned at just 3 weeks old and 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 faster 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’ into their feeding regime.
By tying fish to the end of the 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 all by themselves with no assistance from the animal care team, they are ready to progress to the nursery 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 from the kennels 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. 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 an 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 pups moving outside for the first time to ease them into a bigger environment.
- 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.
Once the pups have reached their target weights (25-30 kg for commons and 35-40 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, though seals can travel vast distances and we have had several of our released seals spotted as far away as England and Wales!
We never force the seals into the water; we open their travel crates and allow them to make their way to the sea at their own pace. Each seal has their own personality; some are feisty and brave and will be fast out of their crate and race into the waves, swimming away out of sight; while others are more cautious and will be slower to make their way down the sand, exploring the shoreline before finally heading off into the distance.