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Seal pup cuteness best observed from a distance

A seal pup rests on the beach. This image was taken with with a telescopic lens.JPG
Photo courtesy of Seacoast Science Center
A seal pup rests on the beach. This image was taken with with a telescopic lens.

It’s seal pupping season, and, in New Hampshire, that means baby gray and harbor seals may land on a shore near you. However, scientists say that, while they may be cute, seal pups are better left alone. People should resist the urge to try to pet them, take pictures or give them food and water.

Ashley Stokes, director of the Marine Mammal Rescue Program at the Seacoast Science Center, says seal pups are federally protected animals, meaning a person needs a permit to approach them.

Plus, the pups have a lot to learn in a short amount of time.

“Believe it or not, pups are only … dependent on their mother for the first 21 to 28 days of life,” Stokes said. “Then they are completely independent, which is why we spend a lot of time trying to educate the public as much as we can about them.”

In those short days with mom, seal pups learn how to hunt and defend themselves.

Pups haul – what scientists call it – on beaches and are alone while their mom hunts. The pups are also soaking up the rays of the sun and staying warm.

“The young pups, especially in the first few days, are not great swimmers, and they tire really easily,” Stokes said. “So, for that reason, she'll leave them up on shore, go out, feed herself, and then come back to nurse them.”

The moms are still checking in on them.

“She will be poking her head up … taking a look to see how the pup is doing while she's hunting,” said Stokes.

When the general public gets too close to the seal pups, it can lead moms to abandon them, fearing danger. The same goes for off-leash dogs. They can scare off mom, and they have been known to hurt seal pups.

Sometimes, Stokes warns, the public’s good natured intentions to help pups do more harm than good.

She’s heard reports of people pouring water on pups, trying to feed them, giving them blankets to keep warm and even bringing them home. All of this could be interfering with the pup’s development.

“Although it may not lead – in some cases – to maternal separation or abandonment, it could impact their life later on as far as if they don't learn to hunt as successfully as they should before weaning from mom,” Stokes said. “It could have implications down the road as well.”

For those who want to see a pup – or other wild animals – up close, Stokes recommends a pair of binoculars. That way people can observe from a distance, not interfering and causing accidental harm.

The Seacoast Science Center has a 24 hour hotline people can call when they see a seal pup and are either concerned for them or just want to report they’ve spotted one. The response team covers all of New Hampshire and a portion of Massachusetts towards Essex.

The dispatch team has been trained to help pups if they need intervention and assess whether they need access to a rescue program. Though, Stokes says, the best place for seals is in the wild, and that’s where they want them to stay.

The Seacoast Science Center’s hotline number is (603) 997-9448. On-call response team members return messages.

Olivia joins us from WLVR/Lehigh Valley Public Media, where she covered the Easton area in eastern Pennsylvania. She has also reported for WUWM in Milwaukee and WBEZ in Chicago.