Last January, an injured sea lion named Abagnale thwarted the best intentions of his would-be rescuers from the Marine Mammal Center. Abagnale, who was spotted with netting wrapped around his neck, appeared on piers, rocks and other places in the Bay Area, only accessible by boat.
For weeks, rescue crews from the center used a small Zodiac to try and reach him.
“It took quite a few shots,” said Scott Buhl of the Marine Mammal Center. “But eventually we were successful.”
The team was able to rescue Abagnale and released him a few weeks later.
But today if such a call came in, the ending might not have been as happy. The center’s Zodiac is old and broken down, and it can’t afford to replace it.
“Without the boat, we’re really unable to go out and actively pursue entangled cases,” said Buhl. ”We have to wait until they proactively strand themselves in a good situation for us.”
Like many non-profits, the down economy has lead to a drop in donations. At the same time, the center last year saw a record number of 1,700 sick and injured animals.
“The coincidence of having seen more patients in the last year than in our 35 year history was huge,” said Marine Mammal Center director Jeff Boehm. Boehm said the center has seen a drop of 15-percent in donations.
The bloated price tag for medical professionals and fish has left little money for things like new boats. Boehm estimates a replacement for the 20-year old Zodiac would run about $50 thousand dollars. “Without that boat, our hands are really tied as far as an ability to get out and treat those guys,” Boehm said.
Boehm said the center responds to thousands of reports of sea lions and seals entangled in nets and fishing line. While many are accessible by land, about 60 a year are in places that can only be reached by boat. The financial troubles stand in contrast to the Marine Mammal Center’s new $32 million dollar facilities in Sausalito.
Boehm said a long campaign of fundraising helped pay for the new buildings. He said the strain of the new construction, as well as an increase in injured animals has led to some layoffs and belt-tightening at the donation-dependent center. Last week, volunteers at the center held a fundraising barbecue to help raise money to pay for a new vessel. Because for an organization that’s made it a mission to help the helpless, having to say “no” to calls for help, is a bitter option.