Townsend is a juvenile male harbor seal that stranded on September 6, 2012 in Old Orchard Beach, Maine suffering from respiratory distress and cuts to his face and chin. He was transferred to us from the University of New England’s Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center on October 9, 2012.
Upon arrival, discharge was observed from Townsend’s left ear. It was assumed he may be suffering from middle ear disease. The diagnosis was confirmed through a Computed Tomography scan at the Computerized Scanning and Imaging (CSI) Facility at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Before deciding upon surgery, discussions occurred regarding the pros and cons of continued treatment, release without treatment, and euthanasia. Long term treatment, including ear flushing and antibiotics, hadn’t proved effective at other facilities. Release without treatment was decided to likely be unsuccessful. We felt euthanasia was not yet warranted because Townsend’s ear disease seemed to be in its initial stages and was otherwise active and in good shape. After much thought, surgery was chosen as the best option. Townsend underwent his first surgery in November. Dr. Ed Kochin at the Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists agreed to perform the surgery called a Lateral Bulla Osteotomy. This surgery involved drilling a small hole in the Bulla (bone of the middle ear) and cleaning out the infected material. Townsend made it through that surgery with flying colors thanks to the incredible anesthesia team at CCVS led by Dr. Louisa Rahilly. A few weeks following the surgery Townsend was taken back to WHOI for another CT scan to assess his progress. During that CT it was discovered that Townsend had suffered some complications from the surgery, specifically a small circular piece of the Bulla had fractured around the site of the surgical access point leaving a sequestrum (piece of floating bone) and some residual infection (Credit: Kathy Zagzebski).After some discussions and information exchange with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Marine Life Center was given permission to move forward with a second surgery that had never been performed on a seal before. The procedure called a Total Ear Canal Ablasion (TECA) and Latera Bulla Osteotomy was performed on April 10, 2013. This surgery, also done by Dr. Kochin & the CCVS team, removed Townsend left ear including the ear canal, the sequestrum (bone fragment) and the remaining infectious material. During the surgery it was discovered that Townsend had a polyp in his left ear canal which may have contributed to the disease and complications withhealing after the first surgery (Credit: Kathy Zagzebski)
Surgery on any marine mammal is risky, due to their “dive reflex.” Marine mammals are voluntary breathers, meaning when they are unconscious they hold their breath. This makes sense when you realize they spend most of their lives in water and if they breathed while unconscious – like we and other land mammals do – they could wind up with a lung full of water.
While this mechanism makes them perfectly adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, it makes it very difficult to put them under anesthesia. Nevertheless, we felt surgery represented Townsend’s best chance of recovery (Credit: Kathy Zagzebski)
To prevent additional infection, we continued daily treatment including flushing Townsend’s ear and applying a broad spectrum topical antibiotic/antifungal/anti-inflammatory medication. And, we began arranging the permissions and assistance we would need to perform surgery.
Townsend has been through it all over the past 9 months. Facing a severe case of middle ear disease, two major ear surgeries and various ailments throughout. But, he is finally on the verge of release.
Due to the extensive rehabilitation performed, and two rare yet successful surgeries, we hope to get a Wildlife Computers Spot Tag which records time depth measurements, as well as location via satellite signals, before releasing him, to keep tabs on how he is acclimating to the wild. This would also allow for extensive research on middle ear disease, a disease with very little known about it.
We are scheduled to receive two other seals who also suffer from middle ear disease in the coming weeks. This is an incredible opportunity to gain further research on a disease, that so far, has been rather unsuccessful in rehabilitating. Townsend is a rare and special case who has overcome the odds and is nearing the end of a successful rehabilitation.
We are hoping for funding for the tag itself, which normally costs around $3000. Every time the tag connects to the satellite, there is also a fee, adding up to a few hundred dollars. However, the research and data that can be gained from tracking Townsend’s progress is vast. NMLC, with the help of Dr. Sea Rogers Williams V.M.D., Science Director & Associate Veterinarian, hopes to become a staple in such research, gathering the data needed to successfully rehabilitate seals with this disease, instead of resorting to euthanasia, an option usually resorted to in most cases.
See an example of one of these Wildlife Computers Spot Tags here: http://www.wildlifecomputers.com/spot.aspx
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