6/27/13 - "Townsend" 040978
Townsend is a juvenile male harbor seal that stranded at Old Orchard Beach,Maine on September 6 suffering from respiratory distress and cuts to his face and chin. He was rescued by NOAA Fisheries and received initial care at the University of New England's Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center. On October 9 he was transferred to the National Marine Life Center forcontinued rehabilitation.
Townsend's respiratory illness had resolved and he was active and in good body condition, so we started to think about his release. But then we noticed a suspicious discharge from Townsend's left ear. Our veterinarian, Dr. "Sea" Rogers Williams, immediately examined some swabs, which demonstrated the infection and performed canalography (contrast radiograph) to assess the eardrum, but the results were inconclusive. Dr. Williams knew that a definitive diagnosis was critical to determining the next steps for Townsend, so he asked our colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Computerized Scanning and Imaging Facility, and brought Townsend to them for a CT scan. The scan verified that Townsend had Otitis Media and a ruptured ear drum.
Otitis Media is dangerous middle ear infection, particularly damaging to a diving marine mammal like Townsend. If left unchecked, it can cause a bone infection (osteomyelitis), which can eventually lead to a brain infection (encephalitis) and death. Antibiotics and other therapies don't seem to cure the disease. Surgery was required.
Surgery is a risky prospect with any marine mammal because they are voluntary breathers. Their "dive reflex" when they go underwater causes them to hold their breath. Being put under anesthesia also causes them to hold their breath. Nevertheless, we felt the benefits of possible recovery from this debilitating disease were worth the risk. We asked NOAA Fisheries and received permission to perform surgery on Townsend.
On November 28, we performed a "bulla osteotomy" procedure, drilling a hole into Townsend's left middle ear and draining the infection. We placed a temporary drain in the incision to allow continued drainage. Townsend survived the surgery and spent two weeks recovering in dry holding. Once his incision wound started to heal, we put him back into the rehabilitation pool with another seal.
Townsend continues his recovery and is on antibiotics. Prior to release, we will take him to WHOI for one more CT to check and make sure the infection is gone.
Upon release, we are affixing a satellite tag to Townsend so we monitor his progress in the wild. From diagnosis to surgery to recovery to release, we are able to learn a great deal from Townsend's case. Ultimately, we hope to learn not only how best to diagnose and treat middle ear disease, but what causes it. Is it something in the environment? Is it something that can also impact other animals and even people? As of yet, we don't know but helping Townsend is one step closer to understanding.
We'd like to thank all the folks that helped Townsend so he could recover and be released back into the wild.
~ NOAA Fisheries
~ the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center
~ the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Computerized Scanning and Imaging Facility
~ Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists
~ Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation
~ the dedicated NMLC animal care volunteers who helped care for Townsend
~ the hundreds of NMLC friends who donated towards Townsend's surgery and recovery
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