Baby seal rescued

Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Jon Kleine: father, hydroelectric plant operator -- and hero to seals everywhere?

The modest Homer man insists that while he has a respect for wildlife, he has done little to help marine mammals compared to other people on the Kenai Penin-sula.

Still, Kleine is a hero to at least one seal pup, which he rescued late last month from the waters near the Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Plant, 20-some miles northeast of Homer at the tip of Kachemak Bay.

Kleine, who works as an operator at the Homer Electric Association-run plant, first noticed the pup in the pool at the base of the plant the evening of May 30.

The pup was alone, but Kleine and other plant staff members opted to leave the animal alone in hopes it would be reunited with its mother naturally.

The next morning, however, the pup was still there -- and still alone, Kleine said.

"We determined it was either abandoned or lost," Kleine said. "But being unsure whether to attempt to help it, we decided to call around."

Eventually, Kleine ended up speaking to staff at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, which runs a rehabilitation program for marine animals. Center staff was supportive of attempts to rescue the animal, Kleine said.

"So I decided I would get a box and go down and get it," he said.

Unfortunately, by that time, the pup had left the still pool at the base of the plant and traveled into some rapids.

"It was caught in the rapids, going downstream," Kleine said. "He'd swim upstream and get exhausted, then stop to think and get washed back down."

It was clear to Kleine that the animal was struggling to survive.

"Rather than let it drown, I decided I'd go down and see what I could do."

Kleine said he ended up running up and down the river bank as the seal fought the current, but eventually managed to fish it out of the water.

"I was a little wet, a little muddy, and I lost my shoes, but I managed to get him up on the marsh grass," Kleine said.

The seal was taken to the plant, where it was put in a warm, dry area to sleep while staff members called the SeaLife Center to make arrangements for its trip to Sew-ard.

The center chartered a plane into the plant, which is not accessible by roads, and the young seal was taken to the center's rehabilitation facility, where he became the first rescued harbor seal of the year.

Veterinarians at the center estimated the seal -- which they named Neptune -- was about 3 days old, said Tim Lebling, the rehabilitation technician at the center. Like many abandon seal pups, he was emaciated and dehydrated. But, he also was large and relatively strong for a youngster and has since done well.

Neptune was first rehydrated by staff members, then fed a milk-like substance for a few days to build up his strength and weight. Eventual-ly, he was weaned onto fish, and just Tuesday, Neptune was placed in the "graduation pool," Lebling said.

From this point until his release back into the wild, Neptune will have less and less contact with humans. Fish are thrown into the water in the large graduation pool he shares with other recovering seals and he is learning to socialize and fend for himself, Lebling said.

His release date will depend on a disease check, an evaluation of his behavior with other seals and his weight.

Lebling said Kleine and other staff members did the right thing by leaving the seal alone until after contacting the center. He said some seals are picked up by well-intentioned humans too soon or are so surrounded by curious onlookers that the mother will refuse to return.

He encouraged peninsula residents who are concerned about the welfare of any marine animal to call the center's rehabilitation hot line toll free at (888) 774-SEAL, and to avoid any interaction with the animal until after talking to veterinary staff members.

As for Kleine, he said he had been following Neptune's progress and was glad to have been able to save the animal's life. He also said he's received a lot of positive feedback from his employers at Homer Electric, who supported his efforts to rescue the seal.

"I believe wildlife deserves to be treated with respect, and people should help out when they can," Kleine said.

But, he added again, "What I did wasn't too extraordinary. It's just a matter of making the effort to help out."

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