ASSATEAGUE — After the longest and perhaps most complicated rehabilitation in the history of the National Aquarium program’s history, a gray seal pup was successfully released back into the ocean at Assateague on Wednesday.
The seal began her journey at the National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Center nine months ago after being rescued from the beach in Dewey Beach last February in a coordinated effort with the Marine Education Research Rehabilitation Institute (MERR). The juvenile gray seal was estimated by National Aquarium staffers at just about one month old when she was rescued.
Pippi Longstocking, as she was quickly named in keeping with the aquarium’s theme this year of naming rescued seals after beloved children’s book characters, still had a small amount of lanugo, or baby seal fur, on her tail at the time of the rescue. She had multiple symptoms including dehydration and malnourishment along with what appeared to be an infected front flipper.
The animal rescue team immediately began a rehabilitation program for the young patient, and by May, Pippi Longstocking began to eat on her own and doubled her weight to 70 pounds. However, it was learned at that time that the young seal was suffering from an ear infection, a particularly troubling diagnosis for a seal due to its specific anatomy hindering the ability of treatment.
The aquarium’s Animal Health and Rescue Team treated Pippi’s ear infection to the best of its ability, but additional tests were needed. That proved to be even more complicated because access to advance diagnostics was limited because of ongoing COVID restrictions at the facility. After working with a veterinary neurology and imaging team in Annapolis, the National Aquarium’s Animal Health and Rescue Team determined Pippi would need a complicated surgery on her ear infection.
On Aug. 22, Dr. Sakthilla Jeyakumar performed surgery on Pippi to remove her ear canal and a portion of the ear’s bony structure. As a result, the young seal’s earhole is now permanently closed.
“The surgery performed on Pippi was the first of its kind on a gray seal,” said Jeyakumar. “We had a great team and worked hard to prepare for all of the possibilities we would encounter during the surgery. I feel very fortunate to be part of this team. I have also enjoyed watching her recover and grow. We hope that now she has healed, she will continue to flourish in her natural habitat.”
Following her surgery, Pippi continued her rehabilitation and the aquarium team carefully tracked her recovery progress until it was deemed she was ready to be released back into the wild. That happened on Wednesday when the National Aquarium team bid her farewell from the beach at Assateague State Park. When her crate was opened, Pippi made a mad dash for the sea and swam away.
“Pippi’s rehabilitation case is the longest seal case we have had since our program began in 1991,” said National Aquarium Animal Rescue Director Jennifer Ditmar. “While we did not anticipate Pippi to be such a complicated case, we are truly thankful for the partners, staff, volunteers and doctors who helped get Pippi to this point. She is a fighter and we are very proud to have made it to the moment of releasing her back into the ocean.”