...in which Julia becomes a Professional Seal Wrestler
30.07.2008 - 24.08.2008 -13 °C
Over the last few trips to the field I’ve grown accustomed to being the new kid on the block, and, surrounded by a lot of strapping outdoorsy young men, I also haven’t generally been the quickest or the strongest one around. Because of that, I was leaving most of the seal-catching and wrestling to them and pitching in with procedures and things where my wits and dexterity were more useful. This last trip, however, went a little bit differently.
New Zealand fur seal pups, a few of which also hang out on our island with the Aussie fur seals.
I went out with just one other PhD student, whose project requires a lot of catching, and his two volunteers, who happened to be a couple of pint-sized eighteen-year-old girls with very little field experience. Lovely girls, mind you, but the sort a big seal could swallow up in one bite. The PhD student was still doing most of the catching (with two years of experience, he’s turned it into an art form), but once he got his seals into a net, I was the only person left to restrain them while he worked on them.
Restraining a juvenile Australian fur seal in a net.
I’m sure that doesn’t sound too bad, after all, what could a seal do once you have it in a net, right? In reality, they’re remarkably strong, flexible, and stubborn creatures who are more than happy to roll around and bite you through the net, try to back out of it, or even make a pretty impressive blind run for it if they can get their flippers under them within the mesh. All of this struggling is dangerous and stressful for the seal and for us, so restraining them properly is an important job. Pups and juveniles you can straddle and pin to the ground, but a fully-grown seal is a little tougher. You kneel next to her, facing the same direction, with your leg pressing one of her fore-flippers against her body and one arm restraining the second fore-flipper (almost in a bear hug), while using your other arm to pin the back of her head/neck in place so she can’t bite you. Until she’s sedated, it generally requires about all the muscle power I have. When finished, they get pulled back out of the net by their hind flippers, ideally the toothsome end is then positioned toward their route of escape.
Releasing a small juvenile seal.
It’s not unusual for a big mama seal to outweigh me by 30 to 50 lbs or more, and one of the largest girls we caught, though restrained, was able to lift me off the ground with just her head/neck and repeatedly bash me against the ground until we got her sedated. Needless to say, I had some impressive bruises. But, as I learned with restraining condors, despite scrapes, bruises, or nips, you better damn well hang on until you can get assistance or until everyone is clear of the area – their safety is in your hands, and a loose animal can do a lot more damage than scrapes and bruises. Restraining tends to be an uncomfortable, somewhat scary, and exhausting job, but highly satisfying. Spending half an hour with only a thin net and my own strength separating my sweet, tender flesh from a mouthful of vicious seal-teeth gives me a powerful sense of self-reliance.
With the end of our first week, the volunteers departed and a zoo vet/PhD student studying epidemiology joined us to collect some blood samples. I caught my first fully grown seal that week, in a massively "I-am-going-to-chase-you-over-hills-and-rocks-with-this-huge- net-and-you-are-going-to-roar-and-try-to-bite-me-until-I-throw-the-net-over-your-head-and-catch-you,-you-giant-vicious-seal-brute!" kind of way. Did I mention that she was large? We couldn’t fit her all the way in the net, so someone else restrained her while I took blood; all in all it was a solid accomplishment. After our zoo veterinarian and PhD student departed, I was even able to take a few blood samples unsupervised for the first time (while my volunteer helped catch and restrain). It’s a fairly specialized skill and can be tough in seals, so I take pride in having picked it up so quickly.
Our zoo vet takes blood from a seal’s rear flipper.
Although this was all very good animal-handling experience for me, I don't really like the way I begin to think about seals when they become my adversaries/toothsome beasts instead of just fascinating animal neighbours (as they were in Galapagos). It can be quite difficult to maintain the appropriate sympathy and respect for them when they are so obviously trying to gnaw off your leg or are repeatedly crushing your poor, abused hand against a rock in an effort to throw you off. As researchers, however, we need to cling to those exact sentiments to ensure that our work remains ethical and humane. The seals, after all, are only trying to protect themselves, they can’t understand that we don’t mean them any real harm. If I end up with a few scrapes, bruises, or (hopefully minor) bites, fair enough, I signed up for this, they didn’t.
A New Zealand fur seal pup hiding in a rock crevice.
Aussie slang of the week: get dakked (verb: to be pantsed), stuff it up (verb: make a mess of things), “hungry enough to bite the arse off a low-flying duck” (adjective: very hungry)