A lumbering 500-pound gray seal is an unlikely symbol of the pressures facing Brigantine's Marine Mammal Stranding Center.
Rescued two months ago from Seaside Park in Ocean County, the seal was an emaciated 300 pounds with open wounds sustained in battle with other male seals. Its recovery is yet another success story, but the seal is eating through the nonprofit's budget at a rate of 60 pounds of food per day.
"In another month, we'll be getting him out of here," said Executive Director Robert Schoelkopf. "He's eaten quite enough fish for the season; he needs to go out and find his own."
While the demand for its services remains the same, plummeting donations and lost federal grants have forced the center to increase its fundraising. Contributions and grants fell more than a third to $386,000 in a single year, according to last year's IRS form 990 tax return, and Schoelkopf expects that trend to continue.
And as other stranding centers cut services, such as not picking up live animals, Schoelkopf said his center is picking up more of the slack. For instance, it recently took in a 2-month-old gray seal that was recovered from Delaware.
"We're going to continue to do the recovery," he said. "We're just hoping we can offset the funds with some of the fundraising benefits coming up."
This Saturday, the nonprofit - which has responded to strandings across New Jersey since 1978 - will host its first 5k Run for the Animals in Brigantine, followed by a pet walk and block party. And last month, it even attracted a Spanish flamenco dancer to help raise funds.
"The goal is to hopefully find new supporters through these activities," said Ken Schaffer, fundraising chairman for the nonprofit and a former Brigantine councilman.
With many existing funding sources tapped out, the organization has had to look further afield for assistance.
Schaffer, also a WIBG radio host, said the board is even considering an art auction this summer. The new events join a schedule that already included a Dancing with the Dolphins gala in The Pier Shops at Caesars and a fall 5k in Point Pleasant, Ocean County.
"In the current economy, a lot of corporations that would normally be giving grants are cutting back and federal funding is dissipating," he said. "Hopefully, we can raise funds for the center so it can continue well into the future."
In 2011, the center reported $639,000 in expenses compared with $434,000 in revenue. About two-thirds of expenses, or $453,000, were tied to the center's various animal rescue and educational outreach programs. Schoelkopf's salary that year was $52,605.
Schoelkopf said other stranding centers in the Northeast have cut back their efforts, but that isn't a viable option in New Jersey because of how busy its beaches are.
"It would be a major health problem for animals and humans (if) 250 animals a year are left on the beaches in the summer season," he said.
That commitment means that the 2-month-old - which suffered a neck injury after being caught in a fishing net - and the 500-pound adult gray seals will be able to return to the ocean, even if it also means more work for the center.
"(The elder seal) won't be part of the mating procession anymore," Schoelkopf said. "He'll have to go into semi-retirement in Massachusetts."
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