San Pedro’s Marine Mammal Care Center — a hospital and rehabilitation center for stranded, sick and injured sea lions and elephant seals — has operated for nearly 30 years, nursing thousands of animals back to health.
Now, the center faces a survival crisis of its own.
In order to keep operating for another fiscal year, the center needs to raise $1 million by June, officials there said Tuesday, Jan. 7.
“We absolutely believe in our mission of giving these animals a second chance,” said Lauren Palmer, the center’s full-time veterinarian of 14 years. “Now we need a second chance.”
Over the past couple of years, donations have not kept pace with some of the higher-than-normal expenses for upkeep on the center’s infiltration system and other infrastructure needs, Palmer said, adding that some investments also under performed.
California’s sea lion population, meanwhile, experienced an “Unusual Mortality Event” from 2013 to 2017, further straining the budget. The numbers of stranded pups and yearlings consistently spiked during those years due to malnourishment, overwhelming the infrastructure and staff, as well as taking a toll on the center’s financial footing. The center serves an area from Seal Beach to Malibu and relies on donations and some grants.
Ongoing costs have also proved a continuing challenge, with an annual food bill of $100,000, along with the costly medical treatments, Palmer said.
Simply put, she said, more money was going out than was coming in.
“We really are down to the wire,” she added.
Nestled in the hillsides of Angel’s Gate Park, in San Pedro, the Marine Mammal Care Center was an outgrowth of the closure of Marineland in 1987.
The center was designed to replace Marineland’s internal care facility and grew out of plans made by the Los Angeles Unified School District and Sea World in San Diego.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the giant book publishing company that spent four tumultuous months in 1987 as owner of Marineland, spent $3 million to open the center four years later.
Since then, the facility, on San Pedro’s south-facing ocean hills, has served as a resource for students, attracted a crew of more than 100 volunteer staff and has become a popular spot for residents to take visiting guests — as the fenced-in recovery pools are open for public viewing every day.
The animals brought to the center are rehabilitated and then released back into the ocean.
Amber Becerra, the new president of the volunteer board that oversees the center, said she and other board members have spent the past month reorganizing the center’s budget to make sure it was “as lean as possible.”
At this time, she said in a release, 80% of all funds raised goes directly to animal care.
“We are saving lives here at MMCC and these precious animals need our help,” Becerra said in the statement. “But we can’t do this alone — it’s going to take a village.”
The center, which is the only 24/7 hospital for marine mammals in Los Angeles County, took in more than 350 patients last year, with California sea lions accounting for 68% of the population.
Northern elephant seals accounted for 26%.
Most are hospitalized for fishing net and line entanglements, injuries from ocean trash, gunshot wounds, shark bites and malnourishment. The center does not receive designated government funding and the historic donor support hasn’t reached sustainable levels, according to a news release.
An open house to celebrate the center’s 10,000th day of operation is set for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 16. Guests can see recovering seals and sea lions being fed, browse the exhibits in the visitor’s center, and watch demonstrations and presentations. Children’s activities also will be offered.
Non-monetary donations needed there can be found at marinemammalcarecenterlosangeles.com/wish-list/.
Palmer said the center provides a valuable asset to the community.
“I think we need wild animals, we need nature,” she said. “It’s a part of us.
Without it, she added, “I think we lose something of ourselves.”