Vancouver Aquarium is asking the public not to handle seal pups found on B.C.'s beaches, after a Vancouver Island woman posted video of herself petting a pup online.
Heather Marshall noticed the seal pup's mother had not returned to Nanoose Bay for two weeks, and after seeing the pup grow sick, decided to rescue it.
Marshall did report the rescue to Vancouver Aquarium, but later came under fire from the public for taking in the sick pup and petting him while he was in her care.
The seal is now doing well at the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre in Vancouver, but manager Lindsaye Akhurst warns against human contact with seals.
"These are wild animals. They do bite, they do scratch," she said.
Akhurst advises people to stay back, keep other people and pets away and call the centre.
"We can assess the animals over the phone and get some pictures of them if possible. If it’s close to us then we can actually go out and assess in person."
Akhurst’s team is responsible for rehabilitating abandoned pups found on beaches throughout B.C.
Since pupping season began in mid-June, they’ve welcomed 25 young seals and expect well over a hundred by summer’s end.
In 2012, 144 harbour seals passed through the centre, which has about a 70 per cent success rate in nursing pups back to health.
Maternal separation is the most common reason why lone pups to turn up on B.C.'s beaches.
Killer whales often eat mother seals foraging in open water, or moms may choose not to return to a beach where they left their pup if there is a lot of human activity in the area.
There is a risk, however, of 'rescuing' pups that have not actually been abandoned. Baby seals are commonly left alone in bays and harbours, where they are safer from large predators, while their mothers go out hunting.
Usually the mother returns shortly after, but people see the pups alone and assume the mother is gone for good.
Akhurst said that last weekend alone the centre received three calls from people reporting an abandoned seal that was shortly after reunited with its mother.
Many of the pups that do need rescuing are in rough shape after being left to fend for themselves. Akhurst says the facility gives them a full exam.
"Usually they are very dehydrated, because they have been separated from their moms for a very long time and also very malnourished. So it's our job to rehydrate them and get them back up weight-wise."
Even then, rescue centre workers try to minimize contact with the animals.
"For the most part, once the animals are strong enough and they're eating on their own and they're swimming on their own, we limit contact with them."
"Our goal is to release them back out into the wild, so we want to make sure that they are not habituated to humans. And for the most part they don't really like us once they leave the centre."