LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A township K-9 police officer formed a fragile friendship with a stranded seal Sunday night and said she wouldn’t have slept after her shift if the seal wasn’t safe.
Officer Tonya Anderson, a six-year veteran of the force, came into work Sunday night and read in the daily logs the Marine Mammal Stranding Center had been out to examine a seal found on the beach at the end of Great Bay Boulevard.
The same seal was moved from a beach in Wildwood by the center’s staff a little more than a week ago after it was attracting attention from crowds on the beach where it was found.
The animal was released in Brigantine, but Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in that city, said the staff was limited where it could be released because of dredging in the area. A few days later the seal was found in Atlantic City, and it then was taken to Little Egg Harbor Township and released.
“The reason it was moved out there was because it was in Atlantic City on a very popular beach and we didn’t want people to get bit. Out there in Little Egg Harbor Township is really as remote as you can get,” Schoelkopf said.
He said the Little Egg Harbor Township bay beach at the end of Great Bay Boulevard is a much better location for a seal like this compared to Atlantic City, particularly because there is a colony of about 150 seals in the water here.
“We’ve had a seal go under the Boardwalk in Atlantic City with the homeless living under there, and I had to have a police escort take me to give a biology lesson to folks living under the Boardwalk about seals,” Schoelkopf said Monday.
On Sunday evening, darkness had fallen and Atlantic City was lit up across the bay from the township by the time Anderson and fellow Officer Chris Arciniegas went to the beach and found the seal. It had a little blood under its chin, Anderson said, and a pink grease paint number three on its head that the center added the week before to track the animal.
The officers said they were concerned that if the seal was left in the area that something bad would happen to it.
“I was immediately worried about the seal and leaving it out there like this. The center said they were out there earlier in the day and the seal was fine, but I wanted a second opinion after I got out there,” said Anderson, who has become the department’s animal rescue go-to officer.
During her first month on the job she completed CPR on a deer that was hit by a car and most recently rescued an injured osprey while on duty.
Anderson said that on Sunday night when she saw the seal, she grabbed her department-issued raincoat out of her police car and was ready to rescue the seal she dubbed Sandy.
“I wanted to wrap it up like a taco and take it home with me and put it in my bathtub. But dispatch called back and insisted they (stranding center officials) come back out. Then I put the raincoat back in my car,” she said.
In the early hours of Monday morning, a senior field technician with the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, came out again to check on the seal and determined it was OK.
“I would have laid awake and stared at the ceiling if no one came out to check on it.
I wondered why it wasn’t with a colony. I’m no expert on seals — and I spent 10 years in a vet hospital — and I thought that animal didn’t look right,” Anderson said.
Schoelkopf said the female juvenile seal was not injured or sick and has not been since being found in Wildwood. The animal simply wants to rest and comes out for the water to warm up after days of swimming, Schoelkopf said.
“Seals just really want to be left alone. Number one, it’s harassment if you get too close because they are federally protected, and being bitten means serious medical bills and infection,” he said.
He said the center encourages the public to notify them immediately when an animal is found and to take photos, without getting too close— at least two school buses away.
The seal is one of eight reported to the center this month and three have been moved from beaches in areas including Wildwood, Avalon and Sea Isle because of popular beaches in these areas and crowds.
“The reason there is now difficulty in placing these animals is because of over-development on the shore line,” Schoelkopf said.
Suzanne Thurmann, director and founder of the Marine, Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute Inc. in Delaware, said she understands Schoelkopf’s frustrations about finding a place for marine mammals along the shore. In Delaware there are homes along the shore, but not as many businesses as in New Jersey.
“(I) can’t begin to compare Delaware beaches to New Jersey. We have very public beaches, but we don’t have the density that New Jersey does (for) beaches, and for a seal to find a quiet wild place to go and naturally rest, I can’t even imagine what that’s like there,” Thurman said.
The people who crowd the beaches to catch a glimpse of a seal are usually doing it out of curiosity, which Thurman said she would also do if she didn’t already know so much about seals.
“Thankfully, there are a lot of people who care so much and are kind and concerned about these animals and their safety and health like those police officers,” she said.
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