Marine mammal rescuers hope to fill void with new Harpswell facility

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HARPSWELL — On a sandy beach in Phippsburg last June, Lynda Doughty swaddled a one week-old harbor seal pup in a pink towel and guided it into a dog crate.

After checking for the tell-tale signs of abandonment – things like gum color, the presence of an umbilical cord, and weight – Doughty had determined the pup had been abandoned by her mother, and would starve to death if left to fend for herself.

Almost more sausage than animal, the young seal wriggled a bit and then lay calmly as Doughty drove her 155 miles to the parking lot of the Naked Fish restaurant in Waltham, Massachusetts.

There, after again checking the pup’s vitals, Doughty passed her on to representatives of Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, to drive her the rest of the way to their rehabilitation facility.

Doughty got an email Monday, Sept. 21, that the pup had made a full recovery and would be released back into the wild in the next couple of weeks.

That seal is an increasingly rare success story in Doughty’s work.

Doughty is the executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit rescue agency Marine Mammals of Maine. Her organization used to bring their rescued seals and sea turtles to the marine animal rehabilitation center at the University of New England.

But ever since that facility unexpectedly closed in 2014, Doughty estimates that the mortality of stranded animals she attends to has rocketed up by 80 percent.

“The number of animals we had to put down just really rose,” she said Sept. 15.

Many animals are not in a state to survive the marathon road trips to far-away rehab centers like Mystic. These centers are also often too full with their own animals to take more from Maine.

“When you have an animal that is unresponsive, really labored breathing, and having a really difficult time … you’re not going to put an animal like that into a transport,” Doughty said Monday.

Reflecting on the harbor seal rescue in June, she said if Mystic or the National Marine Life Center in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts, did not have space, they would’ve had to put that pup down.

Unlike dolphins, she said, harbor seals will not step in as surrogate mother’s for abandoned pups.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, mothers will abandon their pups if disturbed on the beach by humans.

In an effort to chip away at the high mortality rate, MMoMe leased an old warehouse on Farr Lane in Harpswell to establish a temporary rehab facility.

The warehouse’s owner, Jenny Bichrest, is leasing the facility to the organization at no cost. MMoME just pays utilities, Doughty said.

At the new center, MMoMe staff and volunteers can “at least stabilize the animals before transport,” Doughty said, by monitoring them and putting them on IV.

She said volunteers had been working on renovating the space for months, and stabilizing some rescued animals on a case-by-case basis. The facility is set for an inspection in October by the National Marine Fisheries Service in order to bring it into full compliance.

Doubling down

In the meantime, MMoMe, which has only two paid staff and about 65 volunteers, is trying to bolster its ranks.

“After the UNE rehab center closed, people think we did too,” Doughty said earlier this month.

She wants people to know they’re here to stay.

On Sept. 15, Doughty stood on Head Beach in Phippsburg after working on setting the route for an upcoming fundraising 5K race.

The beach is important to her: not only was it the site of the June rescue, but it’s where she responded to her first stranding at age 14.

“My grandmother had a cottage down the beach,” she said. She found an abandoned harbor seal pup while walking one morning, and then “did all the wrong things,” she said.

“I was touching it, sitting next to it, which is very stressful for it,” she said. “At least I didn’t put it in my bathtub.”

She sat with the seal until it was picked up by staff from the Boston Aquarium.

“After that, I always knew I wanted to work with marine mammals,” she said. She studied marine science at Maine Maritime Academy and then worked for the state Department of Marine Resources’ marine mammal rescue program.

That program’s funding was cut in the fall of 2011, she said.

She founded MMoMe within two months to fill the void.

“Some people ask me, why even do this?” she said. Harbor seals, the species MMoMe most frequently responds to, are not listed as endangered.

“(But) with the amount of human interaction there is now (on the beaches), we’re not there to only protect the animals but to protect people as well,” Doughty said.

“And we may have even caused some of the things that these animals are dealing with,” like strandings, she added.

As the only response agency left in southern Maine, with a new facility on the way, MMoMe is looking for a boost of capital to fund its rescue operations.

Doughty says she hopes to raise between $20,000 and $30,000 at the upcoming 5K.

The event is on Oct. 24, and the run will circle Hermit Island in Phippsburg before ending on Head Beach.

“This just seemed like the right place to do it,” she said. “This is where the story all began.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Lynda Doughty, Executive Director of Marine Mammals of Maine, swaddles an abandoned harbor seal pup on Head Beach in Phippsburg in June.

Volunteers monitor the seal pup before it makes the 250-mile journey to Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn.

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Marine Mammals of Maine responds to rescue calls from Kittery to Rockland. To report a stranded animal, call 800-532-9551.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.