Cape Cod

New dolphin rescue facility hopes to help marine mammals stranded off Cape Cod

The International Fund for Animal Welfare says an average of 260 live dolphins and seals are stranded on Cape Cod each year, and the new Dolphin Rescue Center in Orleans, Massachusetts, will treat the animals

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An old auto parts store in Orleans, Massachusetts, has been turned into an emergency room for dolphins.

The Dolphin Rescue Center will soon receive stranded dolphins and other marine mammals rescued by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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"It's innovative in that it's looking at doing intensive care short-term, so animals will be here for about 24 hours to 96 hours, so one to four days receiving advanced diagnostics, advanced treatments, all in the effort to get them back out into their habitat as quickly as possible," said IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue Team Director Brian Sharp.

He says each year, on average, 260 live and dead dolphins and seals are stranded on Cape Cod. This year is on track to surpass that, as 237 have washed up on the shore so far.

Sharp says dolphins follow fish into the Cape and get stuck when the tide empties quickly.

"Navigating those sandbars, it basically is a death sentence for these dolphins as they come in, because they can't get back out to deep water," said Sharp.

For the past 25 years, IFAW staff and volunteers have responded to stranded marine animals with a mobile unit, helping return them to the ocean. But sometimes, the stress of being stranded hurts their ability to survive.

"It can actually damage heart muscle and make it so that even if the dolphin swam off, they may die within a couple of days," Sharp said. "And that's what this facility was built to try to figure out."

The former retail space has been remodeled with two 4,500-gallon saltwater pools, where the patients will be provided 24-hour support. It also includes a veterinary laboratory and pharmacy.

"Through caring for these animals and providing treatment, we hope to be able to learn from that, as far as what effects that has on the animals, and then also what can be done to reverse any of those effects, to try to increase the chance that they survive," said Sharp.

There is also a small kitchen area to prepare meals for the animals, either blended or whole fish.

"A lot of times, when we see stranded dolphins, they haven't eaten in at least a couple of days, because a lot of times, we see that their GI tract is empty," Sharp said. "That's where they'll get their first meal in an effort to try to get them ready for that release."

The facility also includes office space that he says could be used for research and training.

"Because strandings happen so frequently here on Cape Cod, it provides us a natural training center for other people from the region, nationally and internationally. Just in June, we had two members of the Kenyan stranding team that came over and train with us," said Sharp. "If a stranding happens while they are here, we [could] take them out in the field. This is going to change it a little bit. So now we can provide them some hands-on experience working with our staff. When we have animals that are patients that are here in care, they can get more experience with blood draws, they can get more experience with animal handling. And so that way it's not just PowerPoint presentations in a classroom."

He said the center will also expand opportunities for volunteers.

"We have about 140 volunteers. Typically, because of our response model, we needed people who could drop what they're doing and lived year-round on Cape and be able to get out to the beach as quickly as possible," said Sharp. "This facility is going to be able to change that a little bit, where someone from Boston would be able to come in, because it's going to be 24-hour care. The stranding event isn't going to be over in three hours or four hours, it's going to take a much longer period of time. So one of the things that we're looking at is being able to engage volunteers from farther off Cape so that they can be able to help and answer the call and be available when we need help in the middle of the night."

The treatment room will be closed to the public, but the front of the building will have an area where visitors can learn about their rescue efforts and watch what is happening inside on a live monitor.

Sharp says IFAW is working on preventing animals from getting stranded in partnership with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution by monitoring them.

"They've actually put hydrophones out at the entrance to places like Wellfleet Bay. So that way they can match up if they're detecting these animals before these strandings happen," he said. "It's one of the things that we always do encourage people, especially in the Wellfleet area, where strandings happen so frequently, if they do see dolphins in Wellfleet Bay to give us a call because if we get a call in time, we'll get out there and use small boats to herd the animals out to the safety of deep water before they get disoriented and get stuck in the mud flats."

To report a marine mammal stranding, contact the IFAW Hotline at 508-743-9548.

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