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MYSTIC, Conn. • The harbor seal pup lay battered on a Massachusetts beach, the victim of a brutal attack by an older seal that left deep wounds all over her body and sapped so much of her strength that she couldn't even flee when rescuers found her.
Now eight months later, the animal rescuers named Pup 49 is adjusting to life without one of her two hind flippers after veterinarians at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut performed an amputation to prevent a stubborn infection from spreading throughout her body.
The seal pup is quick to dive after sardines tossed into her tank and 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 haul herself from the water onto it. A special ramp has been installed to make it easier for her to get out. She makes the effort in a heartfelt plea for more fresh fish from the workers' shiny bucket.
"She has a really inquisitive and interested personality, and she is very interactive with the environment around her," said Mystic Aquarium veterinarian Allison Tuttle, who supervises the pup's treatment and care.
None of that personality was apparent when workers from the Boston-based New England Aquarium found the seal stranded in Plymouth, Mass., in July. She was 1 month to 2 months old, had lost a lot of weight, was suffering from a respiratory ailment and was nursing very deep wounds that were infected, Tuttle said. She did not respond well to cleaning and medical treatment.
Vets noted that the infection had spread to additional bones, Tuttle said, and they decided to amputate her stricken flipper to prevent the disease from spreading to other parts of her body and endangering her life.
That decision was not taken lightly. The rear flippers of seals are the part of their body they use to navigate while swimming. For the seal pup named after the identification number she was given when rescued it meant learning to use her left front flipper to guide her.
"After surgery, she just seemed a lot more relaxed overall, and just her entire demeanor changed from an animal that was reluctant to be handled from the start to an animal that was ready to get well and was very willing to receive all her post-surgical wound treatments," Tuttle said. "She just really looked a lot more comfortable and really relaxed."
Aquarium visitor Sharlene Cirillo of Berwyn, Pa., was touched after hearing the story of the seal's tragedy at such a young age.
"I'm a mom and, you know, you think about something happening to your child and how hard that must have been," she said while visiting Pup 49's temporary exhibit, near the operating room where the amputation was performed. "It feels like you can understand how hard it was and almost make it personal.
"It's amazing," Cirillo said, "what we can do for people and animals today with the techniques we have."
Pup 49's fate is still uncertain. Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined she should not be released into the wild, because having only one hind flipper may limit her ability to race after the fish, squid and other marine creatures she needs to feed on.
That means that the seal will remain on exhibit at Mystic until the agency's Marine Fisheries Service decides on a permanent home.
Mystic Aquarium has already requested that the fisheries regulator let it acquire the seal pup. If approved, she will be moved off display for training until the fall and then will live in the aquarium's Pacific Northwest habitat. If the plan is rejected, Pup 49 will move to another institution that is permitted to care for rescued, non-releasable harbor seals.
Billy Finn, a 10-year-old fourth grader from Brewster, N.Y., was happy to see Pup 49 swim, dive and play in the water, but said it was sad to know what happened to her.
Colleen Thompson of Colchester, Conn., a mother of two, was more upbeat after seeing Pup 49 for the first time.
"We ... were pleasantly surprised to be able to come and see the amazing work that Mystic Aquarium has done as far as the amputation and rehabilitation."