Feature: The lives aquatic

MMC founders look back on the birth of the mother of all mammal centers…

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Paul Maxwell, Patricia Arrigoni and Lloyd Smalley have waded deep into the fortunes of marine mammals.

by Stephanie Powell

You may have heard their voices as an Orc or Uruk in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—or seen them basking under the rays of the San Francisco sun at Pier 39.

Perhaps the 1994 movie Andre, about a harbor seal turned family companion, captivated your heart and earned your devoted attention. Whether your first brush with one of these marine mammals took place through your television screen or out on a stroll along the California coast, its fair to say their reach is far, and their faces—adorable.

On the outskirts of Sausalito, the Baker-Barry Tunnel serves as a one-way shot out to the Pacific Ocean. On your way to the coast, the hilly roads are lined with abandoned U.S. Army barracks juxtaposed against the natural beauty of the Marin Headlands. Atop the hill, overlooking the California coast, resides the Marine Mammal Center, directly in the center of the former Nike missile site at Fort Cronkhite.

On an unseasonably warm autumn morning, Mammal Center founders Patricia Arrigoni, Lloyd Smalley and Paul Maxwell take a tour of the facility they helped bring into being.

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New book about the Marine Mammal Center

The story of the center’s founding is back in the spotlight this year, as Pat Arrigoni’s latest book, The Marine Mammal Center: How It All Began, brings renewed interest to one of the leading marine mammal research and education centers in the world.

Arrigoni published her book last March and spent the remainder of the year attending book signings at the center and around Marin.

The book came to being thanks in part to the author’s penchant for immaculate record keeping—in 2009, while preparing for the opening of the MMC’s new $33 million facility, Smalley and Maxwell joined Arrigoni in combing through her vast trove of mammal center history. And that’s when the trio realized the significance of their story and the need to share it.

“We went through it and said, ‘Wow this is really an interesting story about people, history and the evolution of an environmental organization that took hold over a 39-year period,'” Maxwell, says. “[It] developed into something very respectable. It was even more amazing when we thought about how it developed with the people—people sort of came out of the woodwork when [we] needed them. And [they were] usually multi-talented [i.e. a lawyer who was also a biologist].

“And if they weren’t,” laughs Maxwell, “they would be by the end of it.”

•••••

Maxwell, Arrigoni and Smalley first joined forces back in the 1960s while working together at the Louise A. Boyd Natural Science Museum in San Rafael, now known as WildCare. While the Boyd Science Museum was not an animal rescue/rehabilitation center, as WildCare is today, people would occasionally send injured or orphaned animals to the museum for care. In 1969, a young California sea lion was shipped to the museum; she was dubbed Alice Parsons by Smalley, who took the name from a shipping document mistakenly given to him by the airport clerk (for the human remains of one Alice Parsons). Alice was an instant hit at the museum; a charismatic favorite to staff and visitors. But it was Alice’s short life that earned the attention of Maxwell, Arrigoni and Smalley. The seemingly healthy sea lion died quite unexpectedly—and left everyone questioning the cause. It was not uncommon for young marine animals to die at an early age in captivity. Yet, other sea lions had lived for up to 20 years at some institutions. At the time, there was no baseline of information collected on marine mammals in captivity—no studies on the variables that resulted in either early death or long life. Alice’s demise remained a mystery, and precipitated an interest in research at the museum. The museum members reached out to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), which had just published a book called Behavior and Physiology of Pinnipeds.

After their encounter with Alice (and thanks to a collaboration with SRI) research began to build up and early versions of rescue teams began to form at the Boyd Museum. Many more marine mammals passed through the doors—and Arrigoni, Smalley and Maxwell’s knowledge and admiration of the warm-blooded sea creatures grew.

Time passed. Maxwell went on to work at the San Francisco Zoo; Arrigoni pursued a career in journalism; Smalley left the museum as well, looking for his next adventure.

But in the years following Smalley couldn’t suppress his fascination with marine mammals. He recalls one day in the early ’70s, while reminiscing about his fondest memories at the Boyd Museum, he confided in his wife that what he missed most was working with the marine mammals. She looked straight at him and said, “Well then, start your own center.”

And that’s just what he did.

Smalley drafted a proposal to create a “cooperative wildlife rehabilitation center” and called Maxwell and Arrigoni to set up a team to bring this dream to life. After years of proposal writing, letters to county supervisors, congressional representatives and senators, and seeking grants and donations—the Marine Mammal Center opened in 1975.

Today, the Marine Mammal Center (MMC) is a nonprofit that serves as a central location for the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sick or injured marine mammals. It established a stranding network over 600 miles along the California coast from San Luis Obispo up into Sonoma County. The MMC is a hospital facility, not a home. The goal of the center is to return the animals to their original habitats. The center was one of the first places to record and develop a baseline of research for understanding marine mammals. It has over 24 years of deep-freeze tissue samples that scientists from all around the world utilize. Over their 39 years, Arrigoni estimates 15,000 volunteers have donated time and efforts to the center. Some volunteers have remained at the center for decades. Current Executive Director Jeff Boehm first walked through the building as a volunteer while still in high school.

“It’s about the only place [where] people who seriously enjoy animals can go and actually work with seals, sea lions and scientists. [They can work] without getting a four-year degree and having to come in as an intern,” Maxwell says. “There are an incredible number of people who’ve gone onto careers who started as volunteers. One of the fascinating parts about [the Marine Mammal Center] is the people—and the other fascinating part about it is where it is.”

The center sits on a piece of land just opposite of the Pacific Ocean with direct access to the coastline, an ideal location for rescue and release runs. Maxwell saw the site early on while still at the Boyd Museum, during preliminary marine mammal rescue and releases.

“When we were out here, we got to know the U.S. Army people really well, and they were a big help,” Maxwell says. “We didn’t think much about it as the Nike missile site, [but more as] the perfect set up: it’s structurally sound, it’s got a lot of cement [already available] and it’s right next to the ocean to turn the animals loose. We just assumed we could go in and do it.

“And when I think about it now,” Maxwell laughs…

“Nobody could ever pull it off now!” Arrigoni interrupts.

•••••

In 2009, the Marine Mammal Center reopened with a new facility. The renovation was a four-year long and $32 million project that has gave the center the capacity to care for over 1,700 animals in its first year. It’s a staggering increase compared to the six animals it cared for during its first year open in 1975.

A mass stranding in 2009 contributed to the heightened increase of animal intake (compared to the yearly average of about 500-600 animals), and also emphasized the need for a Marine Mammal Center.

This month, the center is preparing to open a sister facility in Kona, Hawaii. The center teamed up with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund to raise $3.2 million to build Ke Kai Ola (“The Healing Sea”) a Hawaiian monk seal healthcare facility. The seal population in Hawaii has dwindled, with only 1,100 remaining in the wild. The population continues to decline at a 4 percent rate each year.

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‘Scoggins’ was admitted to the Marine Mammal Center on Dec. 26; the 165 pound male is suffering from domoic acid toxicity—which occurs when sea lions eat small fish containing toxic levels of algae. Photo by Julie Vader.

“[At this point] literally every individual animal counts,” Jim Oswald, former communications manager at the MMC said recently. “This facility is the next arm of the Marine Mammal Center-it’s really a dream ultimately of [our] mission, which is to help all animals whether they’re threatened, endangered or not.”

Although the Marine Mammal Center doesn’t have direct experience with the Hawaiian monk seal, its physiology is very similar to that of the elephant seal, an animal the center has an extensive background working with complete with complied research. Oswald indicated that MMC’s history with the elephant seal allows the center a promising success rate while working with the Hawaiian monk seal.

With the Hawaii hospital’s funding all in place, they are hoping to complete construction by the end of January. Ke Kai Ola already took in its first patient in early October (a Hawaiian monk seal who playfully nipped at some tri-athletes). The center rescued and relocated the animal to the outer southwest region of Kauai.

Education remains a heavy focus for the center across the Pacific Ocean at its new facility. The center hopes to create “community engagement” and understanding like it has in its California branch. “This is an endangered mammal that has nowhere else to go. So, [community understanding and educating] will be a huge focus as we move forward,” Oswald says.

In addition to the grand opening of the Hawaii hospital, MMC just refreshed its long-range plan.

MMC Director Boehm says the center is “well poised” for the 21st century.

“We have our range, 600 miles in California, treating animals here,” says Boehm. “But now, with the water just started running in our facility on the Big Island over in Kona, we’ve got a new fresh strategy in our education division—it’s a main focus.”

Boehm also says a refocus on its funding streams is on the horizon.

“As a nonprofit, we are seriously looking at how we bring revenue into our operation,” he says. “Eighty-five percent is classic fundraising; we are exploring how to bring that [number] down, to decrease the reliance on funding.”

Would a Marine Mammal Center have flourished anywhere but Marin? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Boehm cites the majority of Marin’s residents with a natural inclination to be “good stewards of the environment.” And Arrigoni, Maxwell and Smalley, meanwhile, continue to visit the site regularly—attending fundraisers and retelling their story to the next generation of MMC volunteers.

“It’s amazing how long [volunteers] last,” says Maxwell, who himself has returned on occasion as a volunteer docent. “That’s the thing—you just get hooked on it.”

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