Pippi’s Journey

Her unique health challenges, combined with her record-breaking length of stay at the National Aquarium, made Pippi Longstocking the grey seal an unforgettable rescue case.

  • Animals

Whether it’s a cold-stunned sea turtle from Cape Cod or a seal that stranded along the mid-Atlantic coast, every rescued animal that comes through our doors receives the highest level of specialized care and dedicated attention from our team—but sometimes, we have a patient that stands apart from the rest of the crowd.

Enter Pippi Longstocking, the juvenile grey seal that our team won’t soon forget.

Rescued on February 8 from Dewey Beach, Delaware, Pippi was our first seal patient of the year, although she was soon joined by fellow storybook seals Huckleberry Finn and Amelia Bedelia at the Animal Care and Rescue Center. When she arrived in Baltimore, preliminary tests and exams revealed that she was dehydrated, malnourished and suffering from a swollen front flipper. At the time of rescue, our team estimated that Pippi was approximately one month old because of her baby fur (called lanugo), which typically sheds around three to four weeks of age.

Pippi was a challenging case right from the start: She was our first-ever maternally dependent grey seal pup, and our team worked tirelessly to teach her how to eat fish on her own when she arrived at the ACRC. To treat her initial medical issues, Pippi was put on a standard regimen of fluids, anti-inflammatory medication and antibiotics, and she was on the mend—until staff noticed discharge from her right ear in early March.

grey seal pippi longstocking swimming
Pippi Longstocking stranded in Delaware on February 8 and was our first rescued seal of the year.

A Serious Infection—and a Surgical Solution

Pippi began treatment with oral antibiotics, and then with ear drops, but as the weeks wore on and the discharge continued, staff realized that treatment for her infection needed a closer look.

In late June, after being sedated for radiographs, Pippi was diagnosed with a suspected rupture and blockage in her right ear, which was contributing to inflammation and infection. For deep-diving species like seals, ear infections can be particularly troublesome because the resulting pressure can impact the animal’s ability to dive. When a seal can’t dive normally in its natural habitat, it’s unable to forage for food like it typically would—and consequently, its survivability is jeopardized.

The next step was to get more detailed imaging—and a more precise understanding of the best course of treatment. Our staff worked with the team at Veterinary Neurology and Imaging of the Chesapeake in Annapolis, Maryland, to obtain detailed radiographs and a CT scan in July; after reviewing the imaging, it was decided that surgery would be the next necessary step to properly treat Pippi.

On August 22, Pippi underwent surgery. The procedure—a total ear canal ablation and lateral bulla osteotomy, known more commonly in the field as a TECA/LBO—removed her ear canal and a portion of her ear’s bony structure. Pippi's surgery was performed by Dr. Sakthila Jeyakumar, BVSc (HonsI), MS, DACVS-SA, of Chesapeake Veterinary Surgical Specialists.

grey seal pippi longstocking eating fish
During her time at the ACRC, Pippi learned how to forage for and catch live fish—critical skills she needed to master before returning to the ocean.

Road to Recovery and Release

The healing process from this surgery lasted about 10 weeks. For the 10 days immediately following surgery, Pippi was “dry docked” in her enclosure—meaning a lid was kept on her rehabilitation pool—to keep her sutures and incision site dry, allowing them to heal. When Pippi’s dry-docking period was over, staff filled her rehab pool with salt water, rather than the normal filtered fresh water, which promoted the healing of her incision. This was no easy feat for staff and volunteers, who hand-mixed a whopping 3,250 pounds of salt with water over a six-week period during Pippi’s recovery.

During this time, Pippi was sedated regularly for incision care, injections, fluid therapy and bloodwork. Despite the taxing recovery process, she was already showing interest in her enrichment items in the week following her surgery. As her recovery progressed, staff begun introducing new tactile enrichment options—including buoys, dog toys and light shower spray.

Pippi is the first documented case of a grey seal to undergo a TECA/LBO surgery, although there are cases of harbor seals that have had this procedure.

By mid-October, Pippi’s recovery from surgery was nearing completion: She was no longer receiving medications outside of nutritional supplements, her incision site continued to heal well, and she was participating in foraging and environmental enrichment every day.

On October 22, Pippi was officially approved for release by our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She was medically cleared, but just as importantly, her behaviors also indicated that she was ready to return to the ocean. Pippi consistently foraged for and caught live prey during rehabilitation, and also demonstrated an appropriate wariness of humans—two key behaviors that showed our staff she was ready to thrive in her natural habitat.

After a long and complicated journey of healing in Baltimore, Pippi was released at Assateague State Park on November 11.

Director of Animal Rescue Jennifer Dittmar

“Pippi’s rehabilitation case is the longest seal case we have had since our program began in 1991. While we did not initially anticipate Pippi to be such a complicated case, we are truly thankful for the partners, staff, volunteers and doctors who have helped get Pippi to this point. She is a fighter, and we are very proud to have made it to the moment of releasing her back into the ocean.”

All told, Pippi was at the ACRC for just over nine months, compared with a rehab stay of three to four months for a typical rescued seal patient. This long stay was partly due to delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and partly because of the time it took to treat—and for her to heal from—her ear infection.

Since she arrived at the National Aquarium’s Animal Care and Rescue Center in February, Pippi gained 55 pounds and grew nearly 8 inches.

As a result of Pippi’s long stay, our team was challenged to find ways to keep her mentally stimulated, since most enrichment items are designed to only be used for a couple months. To keep her senses active for such a long time, staff got creative and introduced items such as a sound machine, bubbles and visual enrichment in the form a great blue heron replica sitting outside her enclosure. During her time at the ACRC, Pippi became particularly fond of her crab-shaped kiddie pool, which she used for shallow water resting and foraging for food.

Rehabilitation Manager Kate Shaffer described Pippi as active—enjoying her many enrichment activities—and intelligent, although her intelligence sometimes manifested itself in ways that could be a little problematic for staff. For example, Kate explained that after Pippi’s surgery, our team needed to take photos of her incision every day. Apparently, this wasn’t Pippi’s favorite activity—she soon learned that staff entering her enclosure with a camera meant it was photo time, and she responded by staying submerged in her pool.

doctor jeyakimar releases pippi longstocking
Dr. Sakthila Jeyakumar—who performed Pippi's TECA/LBO surgery—joined a small group of National Aquarium staff members to release Pippi back to the ocean at Assateague State Park.

A Team Effort

Pippi was the first seal patient in the history of National Aquarium Animal Rescue to have ear disease. Navigating the unchartered waters of her diagnosis and treatment was a challenge, but our Animal Health and Rescue teams were able to rise above with help and support from departments throughout the Aquarium—especially earlier in the year, when we had limited staff in our main building and at the ACRC due to COVID-19. According to Kate, this cross-departmental effort was essential in continuing Pippi’s care.

“During the pandemic, the staff at the Aquarium really had to be creative and lean on one another for support,” she explained. “We were unable to call upon our volunteers, so the support of our fellow husbandry team members was critical in getting Pippi the care that she needed.”

Seal rehabilitation activities conducted under NOAA permit 18786-04.

Rehabilitation Manager Kate Shaffer

“We are so thankful for the support of our leadership team and donors for supporting the work of Animal Rescue during these unprecedented times.”

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