As I left the first-aid station of MOm, the Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal, in Spata, northeastern Attica, I couldn’t help wondering whether seals remember things the same way we do. I had just visited Kostis, a male Monachus monachus pup in the care of the nonprofit organization’s vets, biologists and volunteers.
Kostis had been found by a fisherman off the coast of the Cycladic island of Folegandros just a few days after the destructive Mediterranean cyclone that swept across Greece in late September.
“Mediterranean monk seals reproduce in September, October and November. The pups can swim immediately, but they are very weak. This is possibly how Kostis – who we named after the fisherman who rescued him, Kostas Bogiatzidis – was swept up by the waves and separated from his mother,” says Eleni Tounta, a biologist and one of MOm’s co-founders.
As per the conservation group’s procedure protocol, the baby seal was closely monitored for 24 hours at the location where he was found before being removed, just in case his mother found him.
Unfortunately this didn’t happen, so in early October Kostis was transferred to the MOm facility that has been donated to the organization by the Attica Zoological Park.
He was just under 2 weeks old at the time and clearly undernourished, weighing in at 13 kilograms, almost half the normal weight of a male pup that age.
“Pups are breast-fed for the first three months of their lives and cannot yet eat fish. This means they simply can’t survive alone at sea. We have tried all sorts of substitutes for mother’s milk over the years here at MOm, but all of them gave the pups stomach problems, so now we feed them a fish puree,” says Tounta as she pulverizes fillets of mackerel in a blender, preparing a meal for Kostis, who was crying out for his lunch from the adjacent room.
“We fed him every four hours at first and then started cutting back as he got older. We will move him onto whole fillets, without skin and bones, a bit later. Even though he was very weak and had problems with his blood sugar, he is a fighter and has a hearty appetite. We are reservedly optimistic about his prospects,” she adds.
The plan is to help Kostis get strong and reach an optimum weight of 50 kilograms so he can be released into the Alonissos Marine Park. “The Mediterranean monk seal is an incredibly clever animal with an IQ that is almost equal that of man, much like the dolphin. They are fast learners and social animals. That is why we have to be careful to avoid coddling him even though he’s so cute,” says Tounta. “Kostis cannot be allowed to become dependent on humans. He needs to return to the sea where he belongs.”
This year is MOm’s 30th anniversary, and despite the many difficulties it has had to face due to the constant struggle for funding, it has always managed to carry out its mission.
“You can’t expect private initiative to take care of everything. We have incredibly restricted means and no subsidies whatsoever, so it’s a struggle,” says Tounta. “But when an animal that needs help comes to us, how can we refuse to take care of it?”