Celebrating the wildlife releases of the PAWS Wildlife Center
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by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist
I stayed in the truck while riding the ferry not because of any real need to keep an eye on my passenger, but due to an inability to pry myself away from the radio. I looked around at the vehicles closest to me and noticed that they too still had their drivers, some with eyes turned downward and some staring straight off into space. Everywhere I turned there were looks of stress and shock. It would have been quite puzzling had I not been suffering from the same condition myself at the time.
A newly released glaucous-winged gull takes to the air (Photo by Peggy Faranda).
A voice came over the ferry's intercom system and informed my fellow passengers and I that ours would be the last crossing of the day. All ferry service was to be halted until further notice. Although the announcement did nothing to calm my nerves, I did gather some relief from the fact that I would actually make it to Kingston and be able to continue on to the release site. Despite the fact that my world was in utter chaos, my main concern was to fulfill the responsibility that I had to the being that was in my care. This goal became the focus of my thoughts, and I relaxed a little as I left the ferry behind and headed west towards the Hood Canal Bridge and ultimately the John Wayne Marina.
I arrived at the marina on schedule and met with three agents of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). I had originally been told that I would give the transport carrier to the agents who would put it on a boat and motor it out to Protection Island where my patient was to be released. They would perform the release and then return the carrier to me on the mainland. Instead, one of the agents asked me to come along making the statement that, "Everyone needs a little happiness today...". After helping to load the carrier onto the boat, I donned a life jacket and settled in for the 15-minute ride to the island.
As we made the crossing and approached the island, my charge was growing restless in his carrier. Perhaps the feeling of the waves or the smell of salt in the air was giving him some inkling of his pending freedom. Arriving at the island, we scouted an area near the harbor looking for conspecifics of our guest of honor.
This great horned owl, suffering from head trauma as a result of being struck by a car, is currently in PAWS care.
Protection Island's caretaker helped me remove the carrier from the vehicle and we placed it about 6 feet from the water's edge. He then retreated and stood about 15 yards away with the three attending wildlife agents. I moved around to the door of the carrier to find a whiskered face with a twitching nose and large dark eyes staring intently through the bars at the water. The face before me showed none of the stress or shock that I had seen in the faces on the ferry, this face glowed with excitement. The emotion of the animal affected an immediate change in my mood and I suddenly found myself sharing in his excitement. I opened the door, removing the last barrier between him and his new life.
I joined the rest of my party and we all watched as a very chubby harbor seal undulated his way out of the carrier and into the water. Formerly somber faces were suddenly lit up with smiles as the restoration of an animal was witnessed. The seal entered the water and began swimming back and forth parallel to the beach. Having arrived at PAWS as an extremely young pup, the seal had never swum outside of the confines of a pool. It seemed to take him a few minutes to grasp the fact that he now had the ability to swim in more than just a 15-foot diameter circle. Once this realization dawned on him however, there was no holding him back. He swam just offshore in the direction of the large haul out area we had spotted earlier. It was at this point that we noticed he was not alone in the water. Several other seal heads were visible at the water's surface a short distance away and the seal we had just released made a beeline for them. When he reached them he quickly became indistinguishable among all of the bobbing heads. We collected the carrier and left him to familiarize himself with his new acquaintances.
I feel a connection to that seal in the sense that both of us experienced a major change in life as we know it on September 11th, 2001. I'm very thankful that I was able to, as a spectator, experience his change. I'm even more thankful that he did not have to experience mine.
Wildlife Release tally: August 21 to September 3, 2002
Wildlife Release tally: 2002 Year to Date
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