NEWPORT - A newborn seal pup may look cute - even pathetic - but the fact that it's alone on the beach doesn't mean it's been abandoned, or that people should try to "rescue" it.

Spring is delivery time for thousands of expectant mother seals - and each year visitors to the Oregon coast report by the hundreds apparent strandings of seal pups.

But it's perfectly normal for mother seals to leave their offspring on the beach while they're off foraging for food, explained Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University's endowed marine mammal program. The pups are too weak to swim long distances, and the mothers have uncanny instincts for relocating the spots where they left their young.

A well-intentioned person who tries to rescue such an "abandoned" pup by removing it from the beach or dragging it into the water may actually be sentencing the young animal to death.

When a seal pup is removed from the beach, it is almost impossible to reunite it with its mother, said Mate, who also is a marine mammal specialist for OSU's Extension Sea Grant program. The pups are difficult to feed and rarely survive in captivity, he added.

Approaching baby seals can also be dangerous to people, Mate said. Seal bites can be painful and may cause infection in people and pets. And people who disturb the pups, even with the best of intentions, risk being fined under laws which protect marine mammals from harassment.

Mate also urged visitors to keep their dogs on leashes when strolling along the beach. When dogs run free, he said, they can scare away mother seals trying to return to their pups.

Anyone who finds a baby seal which seems to be in obvious distress should stay away from the animal and report the sighting to the Oregon State Police, Mate said.

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Bruce Mate, 541-867-0236