This new section is just being developed as a discussion, to consider questions that we frequently hear being aired. If you have any comments, or would like to ask anything not yet discussed here, please contact us.
1. Should the pups not learn to compete with other seals for fish before they are released, in order to improve their survival in the wild?
Certainly not! This is actually quite a common misconception in seal sanctuaries. But there is no evidence that seals in the wild 'compete' for fish. In the wild. harbour seals select individual foraging sites. Individual foraging for a young juvenile consists of diving for 1-2 mins, probably cruising near the seabed looking for small ground fish or shrimp, swallowing them whole underwater, and then surfacing to breathe for a quarter of a minute or so, before diving again. So far as we know, this is an entirely individual activity, although other seals doubtless may foraging nearby. In some conditions, harbour (common) seals - including groups of pups and juveniles - may forage together. Groups of several juveniles have been observed - in Shetland and in the US - surfacing and submerging synchronously, a metre or two apart. At the surface they may lean backwards, opening their mouths when they reach the surface (an indication that they have just swallowed prey). Probably these groups of seals are cooperating in surrounding schooling fish. There is no indication that they 'compete' - and in fact 'competitive' behaviour - as encouraged in some seal sanctuaries - would probably be quite incompatible with cooperative foraging. So far as we know, grey seal foraging behaviour is similar to that of harbour seals.
2. Shouldn't pups be introduced to solid fish as a necessary part of the weaning process?
No. Seals are not like human babies in this respect, and not like most land carnivores, such as dogs or large cats, either. In seals there is no intermediate weaning stage when the mother brings dead prey to the pup to eat. In the wild, the pup must make the transition directly from suckling milk from its mother to independent foraging on live prey. This is true for both harbour (common) and grey seals, and probably for all seal species. To train a seal pup in rehab to eat bits or whole dead fish (as most seal sanctuaries do) is in fact entirely unnatural and outside the seal pup's normal developmental pattern. It does not benefit the pup in any way, since it is quite contrary to the behaviour involved in foraging for small live fish in the wild, after the pup is released. Learning to eat dead fish in rehab may even impede the development of natural foraging behaviour after release and encourage them to develop a scavenging habit rather than natural predatory foraging behaviour.
3. Before they are released, should the pups not display aggressive behaviour to ensure their survival in the wild?
Absolutely not. We know that some seal sanctuaries try to elicit 'aggressive behaviour' from pups by flapping towels at the face until the pup snaps, etc. This is a complete misapprehension, and constitutes nothing but pointless harassment. Such a response by a pup is a form of defensive behaviour, which all seals - however, docile - will display if they are harassed or threatened. It has no bearing whatever on a seal pup's ability to learn to forage and survive - exploratory, appetitive and feeding behaviours are not related to 'aggression' in any way. Juvenile harbour and grey seals do not normally display any aggressive behaviour towards other juveniles or adults of their own species. On the contrary, weaned pups and juveniles are very social, displaying amicable and cohesive behaviours - so any artificially induced 'aggression' by harassment during rehab could, in fact, promote abnormal behaviours.
4. If they are not frightened of people, aren't they in danger of being hurt or killed?
We have found in general that as soon as our rehab pups are released, they tend to revert very quickly to the wild, and are probably not at significantly greater risk of being attacked by people than other young seals. If young seals - whether wild or from a rehab centre - are lying in the midst of a group of seals on shore, will flee into the water with the rest of the group if they are disturbed by humans. However, juvenile seals hauled out alone, or in a small group of other young seals, are more vulnerable to harassment or attack because pups on their own - whether wild or from a rehab centre - seem to have a rather slow flight response to people. Fortunately along our east coast of Ireland, serious attacks on young seals are very rare. So far as we know, no attack has been made on any of our released pups. However, it is important that all people, who live, work or visit the coast are educated in how to interact with wildlife, and that all are made fully aware of the law in both parts of Ireland, according to which all seals - both common and grey - are strictly protected.
5. If two pups are kept together immediately after rescue, isn't there a danger that they may pass infections to one another?
There may be a small risk, but we have not thus far encountered that problem. Most infections of young pups seem to be opportunistic bacteria, which have caused illness due to the pup being weak and debilitated. These infections are not usually infectious. If we suspected the presence of a viral infection (such as distemper), we would of course not subject pups to cross-infection risks. However, in most cases the benefits of being together far outweigh the slight risk of infection.