Sunday, December 19, 2010

training continued

I continue my training in the rescate de mamiferos marinos by taking a trip to Lima city with Dr. Llannos (who from now on I will call by his first name of Carlos for the sake of informality!) and Fio (this is Fiorella's nickname) on Wednesday evening.  We arrive at Lima City beach, the main public beach inside the city limits.  Lima City beach is a crescent shaped gravel and sand beach ringed by high rise developments and restaurants, and has been the site of South American sea lion strandings.  Tonight we will drill in the method of containing injured and stranded sea lions, and we will also be interviewed by a local journalist who wishes to print a story to the local youth.
Many of the people in Lima's suburbs do not know what to do or who to call when they see a sea lion stranding.  Not far from Lima City beach is a South American sea lion rookery, yet many people do not understand what these animals represent and what is their role in the ocean.
After Carlos gives us our briefing, and I receive a demonstration on how to handle the rescate boards, we begin.  The rescate boards are for the animals' and the rescuers' protection, and consist of 1/2" plywood boards about 5 feet in height and three feet wide, with handles for gripping attached to the backs.  You hold the board by the handles in an upright position from the back.  The boards are multi purpose; they serve to help conceal the rescuer and to block the animals escape route.  Great care must be taken for everyone to form a barricade.  The volunteers also use the boards to guide the stranded animal into the waiting carrier for transport to the clinic in San Bartolo for assessment and treatment.

Carlos will be playing the part of our stranded sea lion, and we as a team discuss the situation at a distance.  One person will assess the sea lion from the closest possible vantage point and one person will be the team leader (which is obviously the person with the most experience).  Once an assessment has been made, we approach the "sea lion" from the best possible vantage point and begin the rescue.  It is essential the team communicate effectively, work calmly and quietly as possible, and keep our effort synchronized.  Carlos has his degree in veterinary medicine and his group of 40 volunteers have effectively rescued and rehabilitated hundreds of pinnipeds and cetaceans in their ten years of existence.  Some of his volunteers are students at Lima City university and one of his students will be leaving for the University of Grenada to study veterinary medicine.

Our team assessor has determined that our sea lion is a yearling and has an injured right flipper.  As we make our approach, Carlos plays the role of the yearling by becoming more alert as we draw close, forcing us to become motionless.  We have the sea at our backs, which serves to mask any noise we make and to cut off the sea lion's escape route.  From the experience of the ORCAs, the boards are a non-living, non-threat to the sea lions and as long as we remain concealed it is less likely that the sea lion will escalate.  Of course, the sea lion has its sense of smell but in Carlos' experience these sea lions depend more upon their sense of hearing to assess danger.

As we stand stock still for what seems like an eternity, I am relieved to take my turn in the interview with the journalist.  I back away from the board (I am standing on a slope) and head toward the water to gain distance from the event.  I missed out on what happened next but I heard it was good because there was a resulting applause from several bystanders that had accumulated on the beach!  Apparently the stranded yearling was successfully rescued!

The next drill involved a "blind, pregnant sea lion" and this proved to be a very strenuous exercise.  I made a mental note that extreme caution should be used to prevent damage to the fetus, and I was encouraged to hear members of the group point this out.  As we approached the "female", she rubbed her head against our boards, which we used to form a tight barricade.  Several times she attempted to break through, but we continued to position the boards in order to navigate her back to the transport kennel.  If she pushes against the boards, we can push back but we must take care to maintain contact with each other's boards (we form a polygon) and to not raise the boards off the ground.  This female is blind but she knows that something is up-she puts her flipper on the kennel to try to determine what is in front of her and she tries backing away, all the while grunting and bellowing (Carlos is very good at being a sea lion!), trying to climb on top of the carrier!  Patience, patience and communication, the briefing that I received was very useful: keep one foot solidly against the board and push with your entire body, maintain contact with the boards, and listen for the team leader's cues.  After what seems like hours of pushing, and nearly containing the soon to be mother only to have her back away, we have the female in the carrier and everyone applauds.
Now for the critique!  At one point the "sea lion" collapsed halfway into the crate after a prolonged struggle.  Did anyone notice that?  I remembered trying to keep from cracking up when Carlos lay face down, half in and half out of the kennel with his legs splayed-I blurt out "she was tired!"  "Yes!" Carlos says emphatically, and instead of taking a break ourselves,
we should have taken the advantage and escorted her the rest of the way into the kennel before she regained her strength.  The group discussed many more pros and cons, and I was encouraged by the site of so many hopeful and enthusiastic faces who were interested in saving the lives of these beautiful and important creatures.  Ten years ago this group did not exist and now they are 40 in number, not including the people who travel from all over the world to serve as volunteers.  I asked Carlos "what is the treatment for blindness in a pregnant female?"  His reply-the objective is to treat her eyes with
a topical medication as quickly as possible and return her to her rookery before she gives birth.  The drill that we have just performed is based on a real live rescue.

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