“Oh, wow! Look!” a young girl screams as she watches a crane swoop into a rehabilitation pen, stealing a fish from a young sea lion pup and flying away.
“Did you see that?!” another child exclaims. “That was so cool!”
These children, students from President Avenue Elementary School in Harbor City, are giddy with excitement to see sea lions up close and personal, many for the first time. Their noses pressed against the chain-link fence that encompasses the enclosure, they stare intently as a volunteer tosses fish into the pools, hoping the sea lions will feed in as natural a state as possible, trying not to expose them to human interaction as best they can for their eventual release back into the wild.
“Look over there!” a young boy excitedly says, pointing towards a large sea lion, maybe the biggest one here, clapping its fins and barking towards the sky, its head shaking violently with every yelp.
“Sadly, that one is blind,” a center volunteer says. The children’s excitement quickly turns to concern. They soon realize that this isn’t Sea World, and these sea lions aren’t there to perform. Instead, the sea lions they’re viewing are all sick or injured and in various stages of rehabilitation due to the commendable work by the small staff and volunteers that make up the Marine Mammal Care Center.
Unfortunately, as the sea lions they care for struggle to survive, the center, which has been in operation for nearly 30 years, has found itself in a life or death situation of its own, as a massive budget crisis could force the facility to close if they fail to raise $1 million by June of this year.
A PERFECT STORM OF PROBLEMS
So how did the Marine Mammal Care Center become so financially strapped?
In November of 2019, Jeff Cozad, the former board president and executive director of the center, resigned abruptly and amid controversy, leaving the organization without leadership and in a very precarious financial position. Amber Becerra, an entertainment attorney who was asked to join the all-volunteer board by Cozad, was asked to take over as board president and executive director soon after.
According to Becerra, the problems started to mount in 2016, when Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the book publishing company that originally spent $3 million to open the center in 1992, abruptly pulled their endowment funds, forcing Cozad to convert the organization into a nonprofit. It was something the center wasn’t prepared for.
“It’s a two-fold explanation,” says Becerra. “We had an ‘unusual mortality event’ (UME) from 2013 to 2017, where we had a large number of animals come in way beyond what we were anticipating. One year we had 700 animals, whereas an average year is 350. That put a major strain on the already limited resources that we had.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an unusual mortality event is defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as: a stranding event that is unexpected and involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population. The event demands an immediate response.
Becerra continues, “Secondly, we became a nonprofit. We’re basically a spin-off of what was previously a for-profit corporation. [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich] decided that they didn’t want to have this entity anymore. At some point, they realized they wanted to be done with this organization. So, we were formed into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2016 as a result of that.”
The nonprofit changed its name to Marine Mammal Care Center Los Angeles in the hopes that it would be able to cast a wider net for donations. Before it cut ties, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich gave the center a three-year timeframe and some seed money to help bridge the gap that would be left with their departure. The fundraising never gained enough traction, and the mounting costs and lack of income were putting the center underwater.
“Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough money, and there wasn’t enough donor support during those three years,” says Becerra.
When she was presented with the financials after taking over the board, Becerra saw a center in turmoil and about to collapse.
“This isn’t the kind of entity where, for example, we’re selling artwork where we could just stop buying so much art because we don’t have the money. This is the kind of organization where the money has to go out because we have animals [that need to be saved]. Then we have this unusual mortality event. What are we going to do? We’re not going to let them die. So, we spend the money, even if we don’t necessarily have it, in order to keep operating and take care of the animals that we have.”
Prior to Becerra taking over, the center’s yearly budget was $1.6 million, which she says was already lean enough considering how many animals they were tending to during that time.
“Upon looking at the financials from 2017 and 2018, it became obvious that we were in crisis mode, and it was time to just slash everything,” she says. “We basically eliminated our entire development staff and kept one administrative position; the rest of the money is all going toward animal care. Right now, we have 85% of every dollar that comes in going directly toward taking care of the animals.”
Currently, the center is operating with a tight $1 million budget, with 11 paid employees and a team of 150 trained volunteers. Becerra, for her part, is working for the center on a volunteer basis as board president and is receiving no salary as acting executive director.
“When Jeff resigned, there was really no one else on the board that had the capacity to step into a role like this, because we knew we wouldn’t have a budget for an executive director,” she says. “Right now, the president of the board, according to our bylaws, actually becomes the president of the entire organization.”
REHAB & RELEASE
Located deep within Angels Gate Park, the Marine Mammal Care Center opened in 1992 and is the only animal hospital in Los Angeles County that cares for sick and injured pinnipeds (seals and sea lions). The center’s mission is two-fold: operate as a rehabilitation facility and educate the public about stranded marine mammals. Nearly 30 years after opening, a small staff and a devoted group of 150 trained volunteers continue the commitment to stranded California sea lions and northern elephant seals, as well as a few harbor and fur seals.
Reasons for rescues can be anything from injuries to bacterial, viral and respiratory ailments. Other natural causes include domoic acid poisoning, which can cause neurological damage resulting in disorientation, seizures or paralysis. The cyclical weather phenomenon El Niño also correlates with increased intakes.
Becerra notes that due to warmer ocean waters, “the center has seen sea lion pups abandoned by their mothers because they’ve been forced to go out further into the ocean to find colder waters where the fish run.” The pups don’t know how to eat or fend for themselves, and had they not been saved by the center, where they’re tube-fed until they can eat on their own, they would eventually starve to death.
After an animal is rescued and brought to the center, it’s examined and tested. A typical day starts in the early morning with the first feeding. Fish (mostly herring) is hand-fed to those who can eat solid food. If the animals can’t feed themselves, they’re treated to a liquid cocktail of protein supplements, vitamins, fish, Karo syrup and electrolytes fed through a tube. After each feeding, the enclosures are thoroughly washed and spot cleaned throughout the day.
When the animals are ready for release, they are usually transported to Royal Palms State Beach. (You may have watched one of their many release videos on social media.) Once they’re freed from their kennels, they instinctively head toward the ocean, keenly aware of their natural habitat.
A COMMUNITY STEPS UP
News of the center’s financial troubles spread quickly throughout Southern California. Features on national and local news broadcasts and recent articles in newspapers and magazines helped spread the word. Here in San Pedro, local residents have stepped up in big ways.
In January, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn gave the center a much-needed boost with a $100,000 donation from her office’s discretionary-use funds. Also in January, 10-year-old Mae Weston raised $2,000 for the center by opening a local lemonade stand. In addition to financial donations, the center regularly accepts items like paper towels, Dawn dish soap, laundry detergent, distilled water, toilet paper, and numerous other necessary items. A full wish list can be found on their website (marinemammalcarecenterlosangeles.com).
“The Marine Mammal Care Center saves hundreds of sick, hurt, and malnourished seals and sea lions every year that are found on L.A. County beaches,” Supervisor Hahn said in a statement. “It is also a vital community resource where kids and families can learn about our local marine life and the threats they face. It would be a tragedy to see this facility shut down, and I hope that this grant from my office will not only help keep the doors open but also encourage others to donate so we can keep the Marine Mammal Care Center open for years and decades to come.”
As of press time, the center has raised more than $500,000 towards their $1 million goal in just six weeks, an incredible amount in a very short period of time.
“Obviously, our goal is to ultimately get to financial sustainability, but right now we’re starting from ground zero,” explains Becerra. “We need to raise $1 million in the next six months because February through June is our busy season. That’s when we see the most animals, and for our contract with NOAA, we have to let them know that we can take care of the animals through that busy season. If we get to the end of June and raise $1 million, I can guarantee to NOAA and the public that we can keep our doors open through the next busy season in 2021. That’s where that number comes from, and that figure makes sure that we are doing everything we possibly can to take care of the animals that we have in our care.”
In terms of long-term sustainability, Becerra is hoping the center starts receiving more guaranteed government allocated funding, like Supervisor Hahn’s donation – something the center never had to rely on in the past – that can be a recurring contribution every year.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be the beginning of this tidal wave of government support that’s going to come in,” she says. “I’m hoping that through myself and the board’s efforts, we can really ramp up that guaranteed money coming in every year, which is going to whittle down what we need to raise from private donors. We also have had very little corporate sponsorships. So that’s another area that we’re working on to try to achieve financial sustainability.”
Becerra paints a harrowing picture of what can happen to our Southern California coastline if the Marine Mammal Care Center should ever shut down.
“The worst-case scenario is that come June, as we assess our situation and figure out how much money we’ve raised and how much time that buys us, if it can’t get us through the next busy season, then we have to transfer the animals that we have now to other facilities,” she explains. “But the biggest issue is that the other facilities in this area, which would be Malibu and Laguna Beach, don’t have the capacity to take on the animals that would continue to wash up on our beaches. Also, there’s an issue of transporting them to these other facilities. In transport, a lot of times these animals can get injured.”
There’s also a major concern for public health and safety. As more and more animals wash up on shore needing to be rescued, the shutting down of the center could end up causing a public health hazard on our local beaches.
“If there’s nowhere for them to go, or it’s risky to transport them, what happens is they end up washing up on our beaches,” explains Becerra. “They often have diseases and can be aggressive because they’re injured. For me, the worst thing imaginable would be these animals dying on our beaches, which is part of the reason we’re really pushing for this government funding. It’s a public health and safety issue.”
LIGHT ON THE HORIZON
Worst-case scenarios aside, with half their financial goal met in six weeks, and with five more months to go, the odds of the Marine Mammal Care Center meeting its $1 million goal look promising. The next goal will be reaching financial sustainability through consistent funding, proper fundraising, and better management.
“You need that trio of corporate, city, and private donations, and we need to also build our donor base,” explains Becerra. “By getting the word out and getting all this amazing exposure through media coverage, we’re really allowing people to understand where we’re at and that we do need community support on an ongoing basis, not just right now.”
She adds, “The volunteers are the heart of this organization. I’ve been very inspired by the people that work and volunteer here. I’m a big environmentalist and animal lover, so to me, this cause is really near and dear to my heart, even though I’ve only been involved for a couple of months. It’s just incredible what they’re doing here and how we’re helping these animals.” spt
The Marine Mammal Care Center will host a 10,000 Day Open House and Donation Drive on Sunday, February 16, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the center (3601 South Gaffey St.).
For more information or to donate, visit marinemammalcarecenterlosangeles.com.