A talk with Greg Jakush
By Scott Douglas
Greg Jakush is the president and founder of Marine Animal Lifeline. The Westbrook-based nonprofit rescues and rehabilitates stranded and sick marine mammals.
The Bollard: What in your background led you to found this organization?
Jakush: About 15 years ago, I started in a place called Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys. I was a dolphin trainer. Although being a dolphin trainer on an island is one of the neatest things you could ever do, I began to realize that playing with healthy dolphins is a blast, but what do I want to do with my life?
At that facility they had a side program for strandings. It was not a dedicated stranding center — I mean, purely a hospital where all they do is medical work. There are very few dedicated stranding centers around the U.S., primarily because it’s a very expensive thing to do and there’s not a lot of funding.
I got involved with that [side] program and realized that’s what I wanted to do: I wanted to help remove suffering from animals. I wound up managing that program and really getting involved in the medical program.
I had this dream that I would create a dedicated stranding center somewhere that needed it. So I started looking around the U.S. coast, even into Canada, for where there was no facility but a great need. I quickly came down with three options: out on the West Coast, it was Alaska and Oregon, and on the East Coast, it was just the state of Maine.
The only thing that was in Maine — it’s still around — is a rescue program through the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor. They have been doing this probably since the early ’70s, focusing on the northern half of the coastline. They do rescue, but they don’t do rehabilitations, so before we moved up here, when they would have an animal that needed rehabilitation, they would have to search other facilities outside Maine that could take the animal. Very few places were able to take animals, so a lot of animals were euthanized.
Also, Maine has the most plentiful abundance and species variety in marine mammals of any state in the U.S., primarily because of the seals that are home range to Maine. Maine is harbor seal homeland. This is where they pup every year and spend the majority of their year.
There are three other species of seals in the area, two of which are very plentiful in the North Atlantic in Canadian waters.
Harp seals live on pack ice. Unfortunately for them, over the past decade, the pack ice has been dwindling. Their homes have been taken away, so now they’re migrating, searching for new home territory further south, and bumping into the coast of Maine. We’re the first state, so we see the most of them. It really has increased year by year…. Dolphin, whale, porpoise-wise, the Gulf of Maine sees every species of marine mammal that the Atlantic Ocean has.
With all that in mind, no doubt, this state needed a hospital. So back in 1996, after spending three years doing all the research on how to set up a non-profit, it was ready…. We were ready by January 1, 1997, to actually kick off the rescue component of the program.
We didn’t have the facilities to do rehabilitation, so we just started with rescue — rescue the animals, and beg every facility on the Eastern seaboard if they had space to take them. We did that for a couple of years. In 1999, we were able to get enough grant money to lease this facility and begin our rehabilitation program.
The first year, in the summer season, we rehabilitated only six harbor seals. The next year, into the 20s, then into the 50s, and we’re up to the several hundreds now. We’re close to outgrowing this facility. We’ve just purchased a piece of property in Scarborough. We hope to move to the new facility by the end of 2007.
Nonprofits always need more money. How well are you able to meet your main goals?
We do funding in two components: one is cash, and one is gifts-in-kind. Our philosophy is that we don’t spend money unless we absolutely have to. So if we need an expensive antibiotic, we’re going to contact the drug company, and we’re going to ask for a donation. If they can’t give us a donation, then we’ll ask if we can get it at cost. And if we can’t get it at cost, then we have to pay regular price.
How often do you have to pay retail?
It’s tough to say. You need building supplies and you go to a Home Depot, you’re going to pay what they charge. That sort of thing, we have more luck with the local lumberyard, who have donated stuff. There’s a concrete company that’s donated. That happens often enough to cover about half of our budget, which is wonderful, because a lot of our cash budget goes to paying things like utilities.
No way could we convince Central Maine Power to donate the electricity; no way could we convince Portland Water District to donate water; no way could we convince the oil company to donate the oil. And those are big costs for us, because caring for marine mammals creates a lot of utilities costs. We have a lot of water. We have to keep the water clean. How do you keep the water clean? We have filtration systems. How do you power the filtration systems? Big pumps that suck up a lot of electricity. Keeping the environments warm? Oil.
We had a very difficult year last year because we had been relying on federal grant money. The state of federal grants just hit the bottom, and we weren’t able to get that grant money last year. We came very, very close to wondering if we were going to have to close our doors. With the help of individual donors, we were able to keep going, and at that point, we really focused on our annual development program.
How much of your time is spent on this begging and cajoling and the administrative stuff?
Not as much as it should. A development program requires constant attention. My time is spent with my hand in a lot of different pots. I work in development, I work on other administrative and business functions, I work with the board, and then I also direct the husbandry for the animals and the rescue coordination. We have three veterinary technicians and a vet on staff, and their time is dedicated completely to our medical program.
Your sign isn’t visible from the street, and obviously you don’t want people traipsing around, but do you ever feel like there is a missed opportunity, in that if the public were able to see the animals, they might form an emotional attachment and become donors or volunteers?
There’s a massive miss that we have right now, but it’s not something that we have the ability to do, because of the layout of our facility. With our federal permit, we can’t allow visitation with our current set-up. Visitation needs to be controlled in a way where it doesn’t impact the animals. They’re wild animals, and this is a hospital. We need to keep that in mind first and foremost. We ourselves don’t meander around the animals unless we absolutely have to — unless we’re providing care, unless we’re feeding, we’re cleaning. We don’t grab our lunch and pull up a chair next to a seal and talk to them, as much as we’d love to. We know it’s not in the animals’ best interest. The more they see of us, the more risks there are for them to imprint and not readapt when we release them.
If we brought the public in now, there’s no way for the public to see the animals without the animals seeing them. In Scarborough, that is our intention — we will be building a public area. It has to be designed so that people can see through glass to see the animals, but the animals can’t see you. It also needs to be sound-proof.
Our mission, we refer to it as the three “Rs” – rescue, rehab and release. But there’s an “E” in there, and the “E” is education.
When we first started, a lot of the animals we were bringing in during the summer were animals we didn’t need to bring in.
Pups are born on the coastline, or on the rocky shores off of the coastline, and they wander around. They’ll haul up on a public beach sometimes. If you’re out at Old Orchard Beach, thousands of people will hover around the animal. The mothers have an attachment to the pups, but it’s not strong enough to where they’ll come out of the water and risk themselves and retrieve the pup. The mothers will abandon the pups if people are around.
So, perfectly healthy pup, being taken care of by Mom, abandoned because we’re around. Those are animals we have to bring in, because otherwise they would starve and die on the beach.
We have had people taking them home, thinking they would make a nice pet. They cry and come to you like any other baby animal.
We’ve gotten calls from people: ‘Oh, my seal won’t eat.’
‘Yeah, we found a seal 10 days ago on the beach. My son loves it, but it won’t eat.’ We have to go there and get the pup from them.
We had a lot of that when we started out. Education at that point was critical. We’ve really reduced the number of what we call ‘pup-nappings.’
The bulk of the animals are rehab cases?
What’s the average time they’re here?
Harbor seal pups, they’re coming in when they’re only a day or two days old. So we have a minimum of a month to nurture them with a special formula, and then teach them how to eat fish. It takes about a month to get them weaned, and then it takes about another month to get enough fat on them so that they can be released back into the wild.
In the winter, it depends on the illness. An average illness, like a bacterial infection with dehydration, maybe four weeks, some of them three weeks. The animal that you saw released the other day, that was probably hit by a shark, took about three months — surgical cases take much longer.
Do they eat what they would normally eat in the wild?
We feed them what they would find in the Gulf of Maine and in the North Atlantic — a plentiful diet of herring and capelin.
I saw on your wish list an industrial blender. There aren’t blenders in the ocean.
Nope, there aren’t. When the pups come in and are on formula, we have to make the formula. Animals that are juveniles that are too debilitated to eat on their own, they’re fed via a stomach tube, and we use a fish mash formula to tube-feed them.
Where do your fish come from?
We buy it in bulk — another thing we can’t get donated. Zoos, aquariums around the world order from suppliers, basically companies that have contracts with fishing fleets. It gets packaged and flash-frozen on the fishing vessels in 30- to 50-pound boxes. We purchase them by the thousands of pounds. That’s one of our biggest expenses. On a busy day, we could be going through about 500 pounds of fish. We’re paying about 90 cents to a dollar per pound.In the wild, they eat live fish.
Is there a risk that, being fed dead fish, they’ll lose the instinct to hunt?
There’s a risk, but we haven’t seen it. We can’t afford 500 pounds a day of live fish. We use live fish for training, to teach the pups how to catch fish and hunt. Luckily, we can’t erase what they have instinctively.
You told me this is a busy time for releases. Why is that?
The animals that come in early in the season, given that they need about four weeks to heal, now is when they’re ready to be released.
Why are more coming in around February?
Migration. Right now, they’re heading back up to the North Atlantic, so we’re seeing less and less of harp and hooded seals, and we are going to start seeing more and more harbor seals…. Harbor seals return to Maine in April to start pupping. Most of the animals are born in the third and fourth week of May, so then they start showing up on beaches.
And then there’s four weeks until they’re weaned, and so then you have the second stage of that summer peak, when weaning ends.
Weaning is a pretty tough process. The pups have to follow after Mom, watch Mom and do what she does. At one point, Mom just says, ‘That’s it, you’re on your own.’ That’s early July.
A lot of pups aren’t ready for that. So they wash ashore exhausted, because they’re chasing after live fish and they just can’t do it. They’re malnourished, so they get respiratory infections and bacterial infections. Or they get cut, because they’re chasing after things and hitting rocks. July is our busiest rescue month because of all the ‘weanlings’ that come in. Come back here in the summer, and you’ll see our vet technicians are nonstop, ’round the clock. Neonatal care is primarily what we do here.
You’ve said how the animals are harmed by human activity. What about the argument that, in nature, these animals are meant to die, and you’re interfering with the natural cycle?
The reason I started doing this is to remove suffering. I’m not out there to repopulate the planet with any particular species and mess up the balance of nature. The problem we have is that nobody right now scientifically can say what’s natural and what’s not.
Look at deer and bears and coyotes. What do they have for habitat anymore? We’re ripping it away from them. So what’s natural for them? What would be a natural population for deer if we didn’t come in and concrete-pave their forests? We don’t know.
So we have to say, ‘Yes, the deer population is growing. We have more human-developed areas, and if the deer population grows too much, they’re all going to starve to death.’ That’s one of the bases for hunting, and I can see some of the thinking in that. Granted, I have objections to the suffering and the method, but I can see that, yeah, if there are 20,000 of any animal in an area that can only feed 10,000, you’ve got a lot of suffering and disease going on. I don’t think that going out there with guns is the way to solve it, but I understand the process.
Same thing with marine mammals. People ask if the harbor seal population is endangered. Well, what do you consider endangered? What was the harbor seal population in the 1800s, before we took over all the outer islands, and we built all these fast ships and put all the fishing vessels out there and start raping the seas, and started dumping medical toxins and pollution and trash in the water?
So what is natural? Good question. But if somebody says, ‘It’s natural. Let the animal die.’ I say, ‘Tell me what’s natural, and give me the scientific proof.’
What’s tough is that premature animals in any species, nature says, ‘That’s not an animal that’s supposed to be the strongest of the species. That’s not one that should grow up and repopulate.’ We have undone nature. Look at our hospitals. We have continued life in the elderly well beyond what we should be doing.
It’s a tough thing to say, but same thing with babies. There are babies that are born that, by nature, aren’t built to survive. We don’t take that approach here. If we have a premature pup that we can nurture without invasive procedures, and we think it can eventually be brought to health such that it can be an active participant in the marine environment, we’ll do everything we can to help that animal reach that stage.
But there are some where we have to say, ‘It’s just not in that animal’s cards,’ and we have to euthanize them.
Do you ever get animals besides seals?
Over the years we’ve gotten animals from humpback whales to minke whales to pilot whales to porpoises. We’ve had a striped dolphin. But they’re very few and far between.
Seals spend about half their time on land. Dolphins don’t — their entire life is in the water. So when a seal becomes ill, it has the ability to haul onto a rock ledge or beach and be found. A porpoise or a dolphin, the only time we find them is when the illness they have so overwhelms them that they can’t navigate anymore, and they get caught in the currents and get washed in. So when we find them, they’re the sickest of the sick. Their survival rate is absolutely horrible.