48%. Those are the odds of a newborn seal surviving its first year on the coast of Maine. Maine, as ruggedly beautiful a place as it is, poses enormous dangers for seal pups. For the 20,000 seals born a year, each pup faces predators, abandonment, disease and sickness. And, they face fishing lines. They face climate change.
Founded in 2011, The Marine Mammals of Maine (MMOME) is a non-profit triage center for native seals, located in Harpswell, Maine. The only center of its kind in the state, seals and other marine life receive life-saving measures for up to 96 hours before being transported to a long-term facility. This year the center is in on pace to treat over 80 seals and will perform and assist in over 100 rescues and deceased animal standings.
They cover a coastal maze of 2,500 miles, the equivalent distance from New York to Los Angeles. And, it’s all done by two women, five college interns and generous volunteers from the local community. All this in a metal-clad facility originally built to house lobster boats. They work against the elements, they fight against the odds.
Lynda Doughty, Founding Executive Director, founded MMOME in 2011. Unassuming and soft spoken, fantastically gifted with purpose and unwavering resilience (also a fan of 80’s music). “I knew as a kid this is what I always wanted to do. I knew. I just didn’t know how to get here,” Linda reflects. “My Mom was literally calling around asking how to get me involved. It all started with volunteering.”
In 2014, Dominique Walk joined Lynda full-time, serving as an Assistant Stranding Coordinator. Together, they oversee all the clinical and operational aspects of the center. Interns––the engine of this organization––are continually mentored and guided by Lynda and Dominique.
A rare and immensely valuable experience for students looking to enter the field of marine science and research.
Days are long at the triage center, beginning at 7AM for the first feeding, ending 13 hours later. Pups are treated, nourished, bathed, tested and monitored. Interns clean and sterilize, again and again. There’s a rhythm to the day, but it’s anything but a routine.
Cries from the seal pups echo off the sheet metal walls, a language you understand all too easily.
Asked what the greatest challenge facing MMOME is and Dominque offers an immediate response: “People. Human intervention in the field with seals is our greatest challenge. We operate on a first come, first serve basis and only have spots for about 10 seals. A seal that has been intervened with runs the chance of us not being able to care for an animal that is naturally injured or sick. We had a recent case where a baby seal was removed from a beach and we found the animal in a backyard hammock, being fed hot dogs. That part of our work gets frustrating because it can be prevented.”
Lynda works her phone all morning, arranging transportation to Chebeague Island where a seal pup has been reported stranded. Whatever it takes they will get there: by boat, by kayak, by truck, by quad-runner, by foot. A local friend and Maine Marine Patrol officer, Chad, offers to transport the team. It’s a solid hour boat ride from the town of Bath to Chebeague.
Once there, the search is all by foot. Searching for the baby seal pup along the crag is methodical, intensive. Lynda and Dominique skate across the toothed rock effortless, never taking their eyes off the search. Strides you can tell developed as young girls, playing against the backdrop of a Maine summer.
The search goes on; the June sun tracks west. A baby seal carcass is found. Maybe it’s the seal they are looking for––maybe not. In the wild Mother Nature rarely gives up the truth. “It’s a fine line we walk,” Dominque offers on the journey back. “When should we intervene and when should we let nature take its course?”
Back at the center, volunteers arrive for the evening feed––an older retired couple, a young boy and his Mom. Education is an important element to the mission and impact of the organization. Lynda goes over each of the pups, who gets what and what meds. “The sooner we can educate young people on how to care for and protect these animals, the better. Responsibility for wildlife favors them longer. We’re also hoping to help educate the parents, too,” she smiles.
Lynda checks her pups one last time before leaving. “We don’t put a dent in the seal life population,” Lynda freely admits. An honest admission. “We don’t focus on numbers. We focus on lives. There are so many people out there that want to help stranded animals and we are someone they can call. They want a good outcome for the animal just as much as we do. These animals are just a part of this community as we are.”
Lynda climbs into her truck, another day fought and won. Journey’s popular hit, Don’t Stop Believin’ plays out the windows. She certainly won’t.