NEWPORT - When Bruce Mate's phone rings at this time of year, chances are good that it's a panicky call from someone trying to rescue a "stranded" baby seal. The problem is, most of those seal pups aren't really in trouble - until some well-meaning rescuer steps into the picture.

Mate, marine mammal expert at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center, gets similar calls every spring. And every spring, he tries to persuade people to leave the seal pups alone.

This season, Mate expects the annual problem to be worse than usual. Disruptions caused by the El Nino climate phenomenon have resulted in fewer female seals giving birth than usual, and more of the pups being born with problems. He expects natural mortality to be higher than usual. Additional stresses caused by human contact can only worsen the problem, he said.

But Mate admits it's difficult to convince people that a cute, helpless-looking seal pup crying on the beach isn't in trouble.

It's perfectly normal for mother seals to leave their offspring on the beach while they're foraging for food, Mate said. Some pups are not fully developed at birth and are too weak to swim long distances. But the mothers have uncanny instincts for relocating the spots where they left their young, often coming ashore at night to nurse them over the 5-7 days it takes infants to grow strong enough to go to sea.

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 from where the mother left it, it is almost impossible to reunite the pair, said Mate. And once parent and offspring are parted, the pup is almost sure to die. Since they cannot digest cows' milk, they are difficult to feed properly - and no wildlife rehabilitation centers in Oregon are equipped to care for seals.

Approaching baby seals can also be dangerous to people, Mate said. Seal bites can be painful and may cause serious infection in people and pets - infections which require specialized treatment.

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 dogs on leashes when strolling along the beach. When dogs run free, he said, they can harass or injure unsuspecting 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 nearest office of the Oregon State Police, Mate said.

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Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202