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Record Number of Stranded Sea Lions Are Given a Second Chance

May 06, 2014 12:58 PM EDT

A marine mammal rescue group said it is seeing a record number of stranded sea lions and seals along the Northern and Central California coast.

The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito said as of Monday, it has brought in 446 California sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals and fur seals this year, according to The Associated Press. That's up from 302 animals admitted over the same period last year.

They are taking in these pups, nourishing them back to health and giving them a second chance at life in the rough seas. Many of the rescued mammals were emaciated and dehydrated.

"They were emaciated, listless," commented Christopher Nagle, a marine biologist at the center, according to the Los Angeles Times. "They were just pitiful."

One sea lion pup eventually taken in by the rescue group was even spotted hopping through an almond orchard a mile from the San Joaquin River in Central California - he was nicknamed "Hoppie."

By March, federal wildlife officials declared an "unusual mortality event," and researchers struggled to figure out why mothers were abandoning their young. One theory is that mothers had to travel further in search of food. Another potential cause is toxins, such as the domoic acid released by algae which has threatened sea lions in the past.

The center - funded mostly through private donations and grants - had to make the painful decision of whether to release the pups back into the wild, find them a permanent home if they could not survive on their own or end their life if there was no hope for recovery.

"There are definitely days I feel inadequate, days I wish were different," veterinarian Lauren Palmer said. "But we're making a lot of progress, and helping a lot of animals."

Palmer adds that once they're released she doesn't know how they fare in the wild, but hopes she never has to see them again.

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