NEWPORT - Spring is a time for baby animals - including seals. But it's also a time when too many of those cute seal pups die because well-meaning people try to rescue them when they're "abandoned" on Oregon beaches.

Bruce Mate, marine mammal expert at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center, is bracing himself for the annual upsurge in phone calls about apparently stranded seal pups.

Even worse, Mate said, is when someone shows up at his office asking, "What do I do with this seal pup in the back of my car?"

If Mate could get one message to the beach-going public at this time of year, it 's this: Leave the seal pups alone.

It's perfectly normal for mother seals to leave their offspring on the beach while they're off foraging for food, Mate explained. The pups are too weak to swim long distances, and the mothers have uncanny instincts for relocating the spots where they left their young.

Problems arise when humans interfere by touching the pup or trying to drag it back into the water. Their intentions may be good, but their actions may sentence the young animal to death.

When a seal pup is moved, it is almost impossible to reunite it with its mother, said Mate. 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 intended to 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 sees a baby seal which seems to be injured or 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