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Researchers puzzled over spike in sick sea lions

Sick sea lions are turning up in record numbers along Southern California's coastline. Director David Bard and Lauren Palmer of the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro say scientists are looking at a number of theories. 

By John Boxley, Producer, NBC News

SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- Along Southern California's pristine coastline, ailing sea lions are turning up in record numbers.

"We have a lot of little pups this year," said veterinarian Lauren Palmer, who is nursing them back to health. Most are about eight months old, she said, and appear dehydrated and malnourished, having trouble adjusting to life away from mom. For some reason many pups are leaving their mothers early. It's not clear why.

Usually, around this time of year, there might be a dozen sick sea lions in San Pedro, said David Bard, operations director for the San Pedro Marine Mammal Care Center. But so far, the care center has taken in nearly 200 and counting. Last week alone, there were 50 new cases.

"It’s a pretty big spike,” he said.

The last big spike was in 2009 when the care center took more than 500 sick animals, but most of those were elephant seals. Researchers say that was due to El Nino conditions.

Looking for answers
During a tour of the facility, Bard pointed to a group of new arrivals.

"You can see the activity level of these fellows is a little low, they don’t have as much energy," he said. There were about 20 pups inside a small pen area, each looked quite lethargic.


So, what’s happening to the sea lions this year? So far nobody knows. There are plenty of theories, however, such as food shortages, climate change or simply an increase in the number of sea lion births.

"We are not seeing a disease outbreak among these animals or any obvious underlying cause," Bard said.

So, researchers continue to collect data and blood samples from the sea lions, looking for answers.

"We are very, very busy," said Palmer.

When asked if she feels overwhelmed, she laughed and replied, “Some days, yes."

And San Pedro is not alone. Last week, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach declared their organization in a “state of emergency” as it continues to see an onslaught of California sea lion pups in need of medical attention.  

“We are seriously concerned about the pace at which animals are stranding, and having the resources to keep up," said Michele Hunter, director of animal care.

Pups recover with treatment
Bard, in San Pedro, says caring for so many sick animals has not only been taxing for staff and volunteers but also to the bottom line at their non-profit. But he said the Marine Mammal Care Center is committed to treating each case and responding to all the challenges, while "staying optimistic."

The biggest challenge right now, he says, is managing the dwindling budget. The animals are here for about two months at a cost of nearly $2,000 per sea lion.

There is some good news: most of the sea lions are responding to treatment, which begins with a liquid diet and fish smoothies. Later the pups are fed herring. Palmer says it's a great feeling knowing that they are making a difference and giving these animals a second chance.

Bard admits that watching them leave is hard.

"We put a lot of hard work and effort in treating them successfully, we take them down to the beach and then we see them go, probably forever,” he said. “It’s a rewarding feeling, most rewarding job I have ever held, but at the same time, it’s a little bit bittersweet."