Surgery saves harbor seal pup, who has a new name and a permanent home


Coral the harbor seal, who was known as Pup 49 until Tuesday, swims in a pool at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut. The pup was wounded in an attack by an older seal and had one of her two hind flippers removed by veterinarians. (Rodrique Ngowi/AP)
April 23, 2013

The harbor seal pup lay battered on a Massachusetts beach, the victim of a serious attack by an older seal that left deep wounds all over her body and sapped so much of her strength that she couldn’t flee when rescuers found her.

Nine months later, the newly named Coral is adjusting to life without one of her two hind flippers after veterinarians at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut removed the flipper to prevent an infection from spreading.

The seal pup is quick to dive after sardines tossed into her tank, and she fixes her large, dark eyes on aquarium workers the moment they step onto a special platform to feed her. Occasionally she swims to the platform’s edge and attempts to hoist herself onto it. A ramp makes it easier for her to get out. She makes the effort to beg for more fish from the workers’ shiny bucket.

“She has a really inquisitive and interested personality,” said Mystic Aquarium veterinarian Allison Tuttle, who supervises the pup’s treatment and care.

Coral showed none of that personality when workers from the Boston-based New England Aquarium found the seal stranded in Plymouth, Massachusetts, last July. She was 1 to 2 months old, had lost a lot of weight, had breathing problems and very deep wounds that were infected, Tuttle said. She did not respond well to cleaning and medical treatment.

Veterinarian Allison D. Tuttle poses at the aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, where she helped perform surgery on the seal pup. (Rodrique Ngowi/AP)

The infection had spread to other bones, Tuttle said, and vets decided to remove her damaged flipper to prevent the disease from spreading to other parts of her body.

That was a serious decision. The rear flippers of seals are the part of the body they use to navigate while swimming. For the seal pup, it meant learning to use her left front flipper to guide her.

“After surgery, she just seemed a lot more relaxed overall,” Tuttle said. “She just really looked a lot more comfortable.”

Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government agency that monitors the oceans, determined that the pup should not be released into the wild because having only one hind flipper might limit her ability to catch fish and squid.

The Mystic Aquarium asked NOAA if it could keep the seal, but for a few weeks this spring her future was uncertain. The news came at the beginning of April, said Erin Merz, an aquarium spokeswoman. “We were thrilled to hear that we were given the okay to care for her,” she said.

Coral has both a new home and a new name. She was known by the name rescuers gave her — Pup 49 — until Tuesday. The aquarium held an online contest asking people to pick from five names. Based on more than 8,000 votes, the favorite was Coral.

On Sunday, she will be moved off display for training until the fall, and then she will live in the aquarium’s Pacific Northwest habitat.

Billy Finn, a fourth-grader from Brewster, New York, was happy to see the pup swim, dive and play in the water, but he said it was sad to know what had happened to her.

Aquarium visitor Sharlene Cirillo of Berwyn, Pennsylvania, was touched after hearing the story of the seal’s tragedy at such a young age. “It’s amazing,” Cirillo said, “what we can do for people and animals today.”

Associated Press and staff reports

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