The Marin County nonprofit that has spent years rescuing mammals is facing its own persistent challenge of its budgets, staff and volunteer crews.
The Marine Mammal Center, fully established in 1975 in Sausalito, is the largest hospital for marine mammals in the world. The 125,000-square-foot center tends to mammals rescued from 600 miles of coastline from Humboldt County south to San Luis Obispo. It also runs a satellite facility to treat monk seals on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Once one of 12 Bay Area Cold War-era Nike missile sites with underground silos that now house the facility’s water filtration system, the center shares a storied past as colorful as its 130 inhabitants. At any given turn around their pens, it’s hard to miss the bark, squeal or groan from one of these curious and ridiculously cute pinnipeds with nametags like Pixel, Mushroom, Naples or Rufus.
In many respects, the mammals’ growing presence in this Marin County hospital tells us just as much about our environment as their health, according to the mammal center.
“We call them sentinels because they offer a window into the health of the ocean,” center spokesman Giancarlo Rulli told the Business Journal on a May 4 visit to the facility. Rulli joked he’s honed the crucial skill of churning out herring smoothies in industrial-strength type blenders for the pinnipeds, which eat about 1,000 pounds a day of the fish during the busy season from March to June.
Beyond dealing with the cases of cancer and other blunt-force trauma injuries seen in mammals, the center’s latest, increasing health care threat involves a debilitating disease called sarcocystis.
The disease resembles the human form of muscular dystrophy, but it attacks sea lions and sea otters. Like the human version, the disease progresses with the mammals gradually losing control of their muscles including the lungs, which eventually stop working.
Between 2001 and 2015, the center diagnosed 39 cases among sea lions with the disease. But then after 2015, the number of cases surged to 38 in just two years.
Dr. Cara Field, the center’s veterinarian and medical director, told the Business Journal she started seeing the surge in sarcocystis in 2015.
In addition to the surge, the origin of this disease has mystified scientists because it’s believed to have evolved from wild or domestic animals on land, predominantly from the feces of possums, Field indicated.
“That’s why we’re concerned. We had only seen this on land (before), and now it’s in the marine environment,” she said.
That concern comes with the remote chance the disease may enter the human population, since both people and pinnipeds eat mussels, clams and crab.
The mammals that do recover are sent out with satellite tags, so the vets may track their progress. The tech-driven system delivers data indicating if they’re alive, their locations and how deep they’re diving.
Chief External Relations Officer Jeff Boehm, the center’s former CEO who decided to step down from running the nonprofit to make time for his new role, effective in January, described his “front line” view of the environment’s changing scene “dizzying.” With that, the pressure on the budget and resources to treat whatever oceanic problem mammals experience has also mounted at break-neck rate.
In 2008, the mammal center operated on a $4 million budget, with 40 staffers and 800 volunteers. Now it requires $17 million, 110 employees and 1,200 volunteers. The center has seven boats at the ready, including four inflatables, to perform rescue missions.
Boehm, who was introduced to the center in 1981 as a volunteer before moving into management decades later, discovered through the years that even those caring for the mammals needed some mental care themselves upon the growing plague of sarcocystis in 2015. When facing its biggest modern-day challenge, the facility responded by bringing in mental health counselors to offer therapy for workers suffering from “compassion fatigue,” the veterinarian mentioned.
“It really tested us. That was our wake-up call — that forever we’d have to anticipate a need for whatever comes our way,” said Boehm, who served a 16-year management stint at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago before returning to the West Coast to fulfill the center’s executive director. That post had morphed into the CEO position.
The center also beefed up its network of contributors, meaning companies and individuals that donate time and money to the cause. Although it’s currently closed to the public due to the pandemic and now renovations, the center has hosted tours, events and performed outreach to companies and individuals, the latter making up the majority of the funding sources. Three percent of its funding comes from corporate giving.