The Seal Conservation Society held a workshop entitled Rehabilitation of 'orphan' pinniped pups: input from species biology. The workshop was hosted by the Society of Marine Mammalogy (SMM) 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Dunedin, New Zealand, on December 11 2013.
The workshop was convened because it was felt by the Society that there is a case for greater input from seal biologists into rehabilitation procedures. The taking into human care and rehabilitation of seal pups who strand due to being 'orphaned', sick or injured is widely practiced in Western Europe and North America and procedures have become well established. These procedures have been developed by veterinarians and by volunteers who have started many rehabilitation centres, and great improvements have been made over the past 40 years or so in physical and clinical care of pups and hence in their survival during the rehabilitation period. However, rehabilitation procedures often do not manage to mimic the essential pups' normal social and physical environment. In many facilities, especially in the UK, orphan pups are kept in isolation when, in the wild, they would be in continuous contact with their mother or other neighbouring animals. There is some evidence that such pups may not always behave normally after release back to the sea. The Society feels that biologists studying the behaviour of these species may be able to contribute to the welfare of pups in rehabilitation by defining the essential features of pup growth and development in the wild and suggesting ways in which these features may be mimicked during rehabilitation in order to try to reduce stress and encourage normal socialisation and development. Eventual recommendations for any changes to standard pup rehabilitation procedures need to be evidence-based if they are to be accepted by practitioners.
The workshop was attended by seal biologists from institutes from many countries. Presentations were given which introduced new ideas on making the seal pup's rehab environment as 'natural' as possible, including one case where an orphaned pup of the critically endangered Saimaa ringed seal pup was actually fed at its birth site until it swam off to an independent life when the ice melted.
Ways of mimicking natural development and difficulties experienced was very much the theme of the workshop presentations and discussion. The workshop was all too brief (we had just over an hour in the middle of a conference day with a busy schedule!), but the participants agreed to form a dscussion forum on facebook in order to keep in touch and share ideas and progress. This is a private discussion group, but anyone interested in joining should contact the Society.
The presentations from the conference may be downloaded below.