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Originally published June 21, 2010 at 9:56 PM | Page modified June 21, 2010 at 10:45 PM

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Stranded harbor-seal pup cute, but don't touch

The young couple, on an oceanside vacation at Westport, just couldn't leave the harbor-seal pup to fend for himself. It may seem merciful to rescue a helpless-looking creature, as one young couple did, but don't. You'll put yourself and the animal in danger.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Sharing the shore with harbor-seal pups:

www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/upload/sealpups.pdf

Marine-mammals stranding information:

www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/Stranding-Information.cfm

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The young couple, on an oceanside vacation at Westport, just couldn't leave the harbor-seal pup to fend for himself.

He was so alone on that beach by the lighthouse.

So helpless-looking, with no mom in sight. The big, cold ocean ready to engulf him.

How would this bundle with the soulful eyes ever survive?

So, of course, they took the pup to their motel room.

That was on May 28. The 16-pound pup, estimated at 6 to 8 weeks of age, spent the night on their motel floor.

At that weight, the pup could have taken a nice bite out of them. Harbor-seal pups, no matter how cute, are, you know, wild things.

Or maybe he could have passed on diseases that wild animals can carry if they draw blood — your blood.

But cute is cute.

It was the next day that the young couple were told that, well-meaning as they were, they maybe did more harm than good.

Mom seals sometimes leave a pup on the beach and head into the water to look for food, not returning for two or three hours, says National Marine Fisheries Service, part of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA).

And sometimes, spokesman Brian Gorman said, the mom will flee if she sees people near the pups.

So what may look like a stranded pup really isn't.

The Westport pup now is in a 6-foot-diameter metal tank at the PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, sheets surrounding the pool so he doesn't become acclimated to humans walking by.

"They were from out of state. They weren't familiar with seals," said Jessie Huggins, stranding coordinator for Cascadia Research, an Olympia marine-mammal nonprofit.

She was the one who went to the young couple's motel room the day after they found the pup.

"I think they had the best intentions," Huggins said. "I think they may have been a little upset."

The upset part came when Huggins told them that it's a federal offense for people to harass or capture seals.

Gorman said he doesn't recall the feds going after people who, in all innocence, try to help harbor-seal pups — spring and summer are peak birth times.

The law, with fines up to $50,000, has been publicized in cases involving individuals who purposefully shot marine mammals.

Still, talk of a federal offense can ruin a vacation.

By May 30, the pup was at PAWS, which has a facility to rehabilitate seals — meaning a tank — people with expertise on seals and a good supply of frozen herring. The PAWS wildlife facility also is hosting three bear cubs, a squirrel, raccoons, owls, hawks, an eagle, geese, deer and a weasel.

The harbor-seal pup arrived in good shape, having made the trip inside a dog container that had been sterilized with bleach.

The pup has not been given a name. He is believed to be a male, although no one has examined the pup "up close and personal," Huggins said.

"We don't give them names. They're not pets. They're wild animals," said Mary Leake Schilder, spokeswoman for PAWS.

The pup did receive a red-and-white plastic beach ball and an inflatable plastic ring with which to play.

Schilder said the toys were not given to him by a person, but thrown into the tank, filled 4 feet deep with fresh water.

She said the pup will be kept at the shelter until it reaches 60 pounds, likely by the end of summer, and then probably will be released at Westport. According to NOAA, there is no documentation on the success of mom-and-pup reunions.

In any case, the Westport pup almost certainly is past the 4- to 6-week weaning stage. His diet now consists of seven to eight herring, twice a day. Later, he'll be fed live trout.

Schilder said that, if her office window is open, she can hear "a kind of squeaky sound," which is the pup calling for more herring.

But, she said, the pup is kept on a feeding schedule.

No special treats, no matter how cute.

And remember, said stranding coordinator Jessie Huggins, next time you see that cuddly, helpless-looking seal pup on the beach, walk away and call the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network Hotline at 800-853-1964.

She understands your first impulse. "They're pretty cute. It's difficult to walk away," she said.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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