ZP Week One: Quarantine Training and My First Day

Days Three and Four: Quarantine Training

Two days are dedicated to training in the quarantines, and thank god. These are self contained little rooms with a small pool, a kitchen, and a plateau, all of which can be gated off. This is Fase 1, where new arrivals and the sickest seals are.

At the moment they are mostly filled with common seals that were born this spring and who have lungworm. Some of them are really sad to watch, skinny and dry-eyed, coughing up blood and worms, tube-fed a delicious mixture of salmon emulsion and water referred to as “salmon porridge”. Others are approaching the end of their stay in quarantine, have become self eaters, and are allowed to swim a little in their pools.

Quarantine 7

Like at the outdoor pools, the morning feed is also the time for cleaning, but there’s a lot more to clean here! Everything in the kitchen, the walls and floor, and the pool. But first comes feeding and medicine. If they are still being tube fed they will be caught by a nurse and then a volunteer passes down the tube and pours the salmon porridge and medicines into a funnel. For new arrivals and those that seem unwell, this is also the time for their temperature to be taken.

Call me romantic, but the first time you stick a thermometer up a seal’s bum is really quite special… I’m glad I wasn’t given too much warning and time to overthink it – clear instructions and a practical no-nonsense attitude were definitely the way to go. As it turned out, everything went fine and I was pretty happy to have been allowed. But if you were starting to get the impression that this job isn’t for the squeamish, you’d be right.

The second morning of quarantine training was my first really busy time here – I started helping in the same area as the day before, but instead of finishing the cleaning there, was taken to a new place. Another quarantine but in an isolated, hangar-type building that they usually use to house overfill and grey seals. The quarantines that aren’t on show to the public are a bit more basic, but the same in principle.

The grey seal pup season here hasn’t started, but a few young ‘uns from the UK have made the crossing in various states. Little Joline had a broken and infected bone in her back flipper that needed to be amputated, while Link is in fine condition but was being harassed by people on the beach so was brought in anyway. Grey seals are feistier than the fairly docile common seals. But you never forget your first love, and Farne Islands diving has warmed my heart to this species! I love their big personalities and don’t blame them for being pissed off with the whole situation. However, I was impressed by the nurse who caught them as they snapped and snarled with no more hesitation than you would approach a strange but otherwise calm dog.

Until I get a good photo of a grey seal here, have this reminder of why they’re the best

I helped to weigh Joline to prep her for surgery, and once we had fed and cleaned the two seals and enclosures, we were off to our third stop of the morning! The wind today was crazy, so carrying a tray of five bowls of fish porridge a few hundred meters was the first time I’ve been truly grateful for years spent working in restaurants, and luckily I didn’t end up with any of it on me or the ground. At this next quarantine building there were five common seals, most of whom seem really unwell. I got to take three more temperatures – it turns out it’s a pretty quick learning curve.

I was very ready for my morning break, fleeting as it was, after all the rushing around. Afterwards I helped to feed the grey seals again and then the trainees had a presentation from one of the vets about the vet departments work. After lunch, there were more presentations, on the ecology of the Wadden Sea and seal biology.

These were really interesting, especially the behavioural study done by Zeehondencentrum researchers on common seals in the Dollard, where they found that this population will allolactate (allow pups other than their own to suckle). This is a behaviour that my old mammals lecturer was obsessed with, and for good reason. St Andrews University have contacted them to ask for more information so they can re-analyse their years of seal data in light of the observation. Whether this is a widespread phenomenon that hasn’t been observed before or unique to the Dollard population, it brings up a whole host of very interesting questions.

Day Five: Starting Work

Yesterday I had my first proper shift, which was stressful. It was an earlier than usual start as I was responsible for making the fish porridge (not a difficult task, it turns out). I made some stupid mistakes through the day but everyone is very patient.

I also, embarrassingly, fell down in one of the quarantines and spilt fish porridge everywhere, though thankfully didn’t kick the nurse or the seal she was holding on my way. I’m sure my parents will be glad to know this was taken very seriously and I had to go and speak to Lesley in the office and explain exactly what happened and how before being allowed to go back to work. I think he’s going to be asking if I’m okay for the next three weeks. Truth is, nothing is bruised but my ego. Again, I’m told these things happen regularly – the inevitable result of slippy floors and big wellies.

We also had the first ‘white seal’ – grey seal with its baby coat – arrive yesterday. Poor Willem is crying very loudly and you can hear him all over the centre.

Joline’s broken flipper was operated on yesterday evening too, but that’s a subject for a whole other post. Now I’m away to enjoy my first day off and have a bit more of an explore of the area.

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