illustration by Ping Zhu

Harboring Seals

There’s no way Katjuša Brejc could take home a seal. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get attached.

When Katjuša Brejc grew up in former Yugoslavia, she had pet parakeets. Later, when she moved to San Francisco, she knew she wanted to take care of animals, but she had to be picky.

"Working with cats or dogs would be too dangerous," Brejc says. "I'd want to take them all home." So she signed on at the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County, California. There's no way she could take home a seal. But that doesn't mean she doesn't get attached.

"There are always a few animals that stand out," says Brejc, a research associate in HHMI investigator Barbara Meyer's laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Marine Mammal Center rehabilitates sick and injured animals, including California sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals, and then releases them back to the wild. From February to August, volunteers also care for abandoned harbor seal pups too young to fend for themselves. Most of the animals are found by members of the public, who call the center. A trained rescue team assesses the situation and brings in animals that are truly distressed or in danger.

Working with cats or dogs would be too dangerous. I'd want to take them all home.

Katjuša Brejc

Brejc and hundreds of other volunteers provide the abandoned pups with food and warmth. "When the harbor seal pups first come in—they are about a meter long—we feed them a fatty mixture of salmon oil and powdered milk through a tube," Brejc says. As the animals put on weight, they get solid food, fish. Volunteers teach the animals to eat fish by putting it directly in their mouths, a task that takes two volunteers: one to hold the animal and another to feed it. Eventually, the seals learn to catch fish on their own. "By the end of the season, we dump seven kilograms of fish in their pen and walk away," says Brejc, who's been working at the center for eight years.

She started working with sea lions but switched to harbor seals. "Once I got a taste of caring for the harbor seals, that was it," she says. "With the sea lions you have to concentrate all the time; they are really fast and really smart. They can twist around, and quickly bite. The harbor seals are a little slower and smaller, and more appealing somehow."

Last April 14, the rescue team brought in two harbor seal pups during Brejc's Wednesday evening shift. One animal, officially named Mairead, was just a day or two old and nearly pure white with big, doll-like eyes. Brejc and her crewmates nicknamed her Snow White. She weighed 17.6 pounds.

Brejc and the others kept regular tabs on Snow White as the season progressed, though they try to minimize their contact so the seals don't become too comfortable around humans. "At the end of the day, they are wild animals," Brejc admits. Two months later, on June 23, the team celebrated when Snow White was released in Bodega Bay at Scotty Creek, weighing 41.7 pounds and ready to fend for herself.