An organization that rescues stranded seals and injured marine mammals in southern Maine is opening a “triage center” in Harpswell, partially filling a gap created last year with the closure of the state’s only rehabilitation facility.

Marine Mammals of Maine is partnering with New York-based World Animal Protection to open a facility that will specialize in providing short-term, immediate treatment to seals suffering from illness or injuries. The “triage center” will allow staff or volunteers to stabilize the animals before some are transferred to longer-term rehabilitation facilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut, an hours-long trip that stresses the already-injured seals.

Lynda Doughty, executive director of Marine Mammals of Maine, said the sudden closure of the University of New England’s Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation Center last year put an “immense strain” on her organization’s ability to help animals during the busy seal pup and stranding season. The triage center is an interim or initial step toward opening a full rehabilitation center in the state, a venture that Doughty said will be much more costly.

“There was no warning (prior to the UNE closure), so we went through the summer doing what we had to do to help the animals as best we could,” Doughty said. But more animals died or had to be euthanized because they were not healthy enough to survive the long and stressful trip to rehabilitation centers in Mystic, Connecticut, or Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.

“We didn’t want to go through that situation again,” Doughty said.

Marine Mammals of Maine is one of two organizations – the other being College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale program – authorized by federal agencies to respond to calls of stranded seals and other marine mammal emergencies in the state. Marine mammals are protected under federal law.

The organizations are often busiest during the spring and summer, when beachgoers and those living on the coast find harbor seal pups alone on land. While many pups are ultimately reunited with their mothers, those that were abandoned or are sick or injured could require additional care to survive.

Previously, the groups brought animals requiring treatment to UNE’s Marine Mammal Rehabilitation Center. But the university closed the facility in June 2014 because of financial considerations, with officials saying at the time that UNE needed to devote the resources to degree-granting programs.

World Animal Protection is providing funding to purchase equipment and cover other expensive start-up costs. While Marine Mammals of Maine has already started using the triage center – located in a donated warehouse – to treat seals on a case-by-case basis, Doughty said she hopes to begin regular operations at the facility by the end of October, after receiving federal approval.

Doughty has been working since then with Marine Mammals of Maine’s board of directors and others to open a treatment center in Maine as well as on fundraising for a rehabilitation facility. The triage center will initially focus on seals because other marine mammals, such as dolphins and porpoises, cost significantly more to house and treat. Doughty estimated annual operating expenses at the triage facility at $40,000 while running a rehabilitation center would likely cost around $350,000 a year.

“The staff at (Marine Mammals of Maine) are on the frontline of rescuing hundreds of marine animals each year over 2,400 miles of coastline,” Elizabeth Hogan, U.S. Oceans and Wildlife Campaign Manager at World Animal Protection, said in a statement. “We are thrilled to support MMoME in the development of this much-needed triage center and to work together to rescue and release even more seals and marine animals.”

Rosemary Seton, coordinator of Allied Whale’s marine mammal stranding program, said having even a temporary treatment and holding facility in the Midcoast region will help. Allied Whale, which is based at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, is responsible for marine mammal responses from Rockland to the farthest reaches of Down East Maine, which means a potential seven-hour drive to the large rehab facility in Connecticut. Marine Mammals of Maine handles all responses from Rockland to the Maine/New Hampshire border.

“It’s going to be huge having a waypoint like that,” Seton said. “It will give the animals a break and give us a break . . . And it will allow the animal to be stabilized and allow us to do another assessment” of the animal’s needs and health before transportation.

For more information on Marine Mammals of Maine, go to www.mmome.org

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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