by Sandy Sims
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The Marine Mammal Center—the largest mammal care facility of its kind in the world—sits just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the Marin Headlands.
Thousands of injured or sick pinnipeds (fin-footed mammals), mainly harbor seals, California sea lions and elephant seals are brought here where some 800 volunteers and 40 staff care for them.
When the headlands’ morning fog lifts, the Center looks out on a spectacular view of Rodeo Beach and the Pacific Ocean.
The beach is but a tiny slice of the 600 coastline miles—stretching from Mendocino County to San Luis Obispo County—that this state-of-the-art veterinary hospital and research center serves.
The public is welcome at the Center to wander at no cost, peering through large windows while staff and volunteers tend to their animal patients.
Docents offer guided tours, teaching visitors how these mammals live, and about the problems that land them in this place.
Fin-footed creatures come for many reasons—shark bites, gun shot and arrow wounds. Some have collided with boats or became entangled with netting or plastic waste. Some have cancer or pneumonia. Others are malnourished or sick from toxins and bacteria, and orphaned pups come to learn how to feed themselves. (March through November is peak season to view the animals.)
Rear sections of the Center are where animals lie in pens and quarantine areas, with in-ground and aboveground pools. The work of diagnosis, healing and research is also carried on in these rear buildings. Here staff and volunteers prepare food, administer medication, do lab work, take X-rays, and sometimes force-feed the animals. Some 55 percent respond to treatment and return to the ocean. For those few that recover but are not able to return to the wild, the Center finds another home, sometimes a zoo.
Necropsies on the animal that don’t survive provide information that helps in the treatment of marine mammals all over the world. In fact, the research here is helping to restore the endangered monk seal population. (A quick check of the center’s website shows the immense catalog of research done at this facility.)
The genesis of the Center was in the 1960s when Lloyd Smalley was curator at the Junior Museum of San Rafael, a nature museum. Locals who’d rescued sea lions from nearby beaches hauled them to the museum, hoping Smalley could help. With no facility around to treat the suffering animals, Smalley took them into the museum. After six years of discouraging results, Smalley finally helped a California sea lion named Cowboy and a harbor seal named Bobby and released both of them into the Bolinas lagoon. This success spawned Smalley’s dream of opening a facility dedicated to treating injured or sick marine mammals and releasing them back into the wild.
In 1972 the U.S. Congress passed the marine Mammal protection Act, which recognized that “some marine mammals or stocks may be in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of human activities.” This spurred Smalley and two other animal lovers to raise interest and funds for a treatment center. That same year, the Nike Missile site at Fort Cronkhite was decommissioned. Smalley’s group was allowed to use the site. So with kiddy pools, some hose and wire fences, they created the California Marine Mammal Center in 1975.
All these years later, on that same site, the new state-of-the-art (green) Marine Mammal Center opened in June of 2009 to great fanfare. And now the Center’s future plans include a large pool to treat dolphins.
Since its rustic beginnings, the Center has treated many thousands of animals, and its groundbreaking research and education programs now teach 100,000 people a year about how our daily choices affect the marine habitat as well as our own lives.
The Marine Mammal Center: 2000 Bunker Road, Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, CA 94965
Directions to TMMC: www.marinemammalcenter.org/visiting-us/directions.html
Slideshow—all photos on this page
Sandy Sims, an award winning journalist, newspaper editor, and travel writer, also writes fiction.
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