Courtesy of Savannah Sperry

“Ready? One, two, three!”

Smack! The corpse hit the metal table and the looks on students’ faces intensified.

“Today we’ll be doing a necropsy on this male California sea lion,” Dr. Heather Harris, a contract veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay, said.

And so began Cal Poly’s Marine Mammal Enterprise class.

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Video by Dylan Ring

Mammal enterprise in the making

Marine Mammal Enterprise is a new Cal Poly course, offered two quarters so far. In addition to the on-campus lecture portion, students are required to volunteer six hours per week at the Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay. This allows them to get hands-on experience, tying in Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing motto. Students gain experience working with sea lions, sea otters, elephant seals, northern fur seals, Guadalupe fur seals and harbor seals at the center.

Harris worked with students to create a class that could offer a chance to work with marine mammals to those interested in animal science. Some students volunteered at the center before the class was created and later approached Harris about the possibility of integrating their work at the center with their studies at Cal Poly.

“We decided it would be great to teach a course that gave [students] a lot of background in the stuff they were learning there, so disease, health issues and make it more of a scientific-based course and then they could go to the center and volunteer and get hands-on experience,” Harris said.

Working hands-on with animals

At the center, students accompany volunteers and staff who rescue animals or treat them on site. Through their work, they learn common threats marine mammals face on a daily basis. The most common reason to rescue marine mammals is entanglements, mostly from fishing nets and packing straps or monofilament lines. Other reasons include plastic ingestion, malnutrition, maternal separation or any other injury or illness. The center is considered a triage facility and animals that are rescued are helped in its exam room.

Graphic by Savannah Sperry

The center and its stories

Walking into the center for the first time feels exactly like walking into a doctor’s office. The walls are mostly white with posters hung up showing the anatomy and bone structure of seals. Predominantly, it’s cold.

There is a large examination room to accommodate mammals both big and small, as well as what the staff calls the “human room” where they hang out and wait until they get a call. There are crates and stalls for the patients to be kept in instead of a waiting room. There is a refrigerator in the exam room stocked with frozen fish for grown patients and formula for the pups. Students and volunteers are taught how to use all of the equipment and how to treat the animal.

Graphic by Savannah Sperry

Animal science senior Tricia Khougaz took the Marine Mammal Enterprise in Spring 2016, the first time it was offered. While sifting through files of past patients, Khougaz came upon some pictures of Bilbo, an elephant seal who suffered from a shark bite injury and lacerations.

“You can see there’s still a big old scar on the back of his neck. That was wide open when we picked him up,” Khougaz said.

Khougaz learned a lot through treating animals during the enterprise. She continued volunteering there even after she took the course.

“I really do feel like I’m getting involved in something I want to do. I want to help wildlife, I want to be around people that also want to help wildlife,”
she said.

Operations Manager at the Marine Mammal Center Diana Kramer loves teaching students how to work with these animals and said it’s rewarding for them as well as herself to help out mammals in need and even to see animals that they have helped before.

“We release all of our animals and they’re all tagged with a little orange tag,” Kramer said. “People think to call us when something’s wrong with the animal, but we don’t necessarily get a lot of calls about healthy animals … it’s always great to know how our patients are doing.”

Animal science senior Brittany Marnin is an intern at the center and said it is a unique experience.

“You get to see things and do things that you never get to do, being the general public,” Marnin said. “You get to go through the whole process of bringing [the animal] here and having our vet look at the animal and diagnose and go through with the treatments.”

The Marine Mammal Enterprise class is only offered once a year. However, the center allows anyone to sign up to volunteer year-round.

“If you have any interest in coming to help out, do it. You may never get another chance like this and it’s extremely rewarding,” Marnin said.

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