Poker in full flush of health

THE seal rescued from Felixstowe has been given a new lease of life by wildlife lovers across the county border in Norfolk.

By Tracey Sparling

THE seal rescued from Felixstowe has been given a new lease of life by wildlife lovers across the border. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING goes behind the scenes at the Norfolk hospital where animals from Suffolk - and as far afield as Wales - are treated.

POKER is his new name, and getting fat is his game.

The seal pup found on the shingle near Felixstowe's war memorial on August 30, is today swimming around happily again, and waving at me.

In a flash he splashes out of his pool looking for food, and waves his flipper.

It's tempting to talk to him as he endears us with big black eyes, but Alison Charles, manager of the East Winch Wildlife Centre near King's Lynn, warns me not to. The last thing staff want to do, is tame him.

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In any case, his wave is actually the opposite of what it looks like. In seal language it's a clear warning not to come any closer.

“He's doing wonderfully well,” said Alison. “He was quite sick when he came in. He had rolls of empty skin where he should have been plump and healthy. He's been on antibiotics and fed three times a day, first on fish soup then whole fish. We give them everything they need to recuperate, and other than that we leave them be. We want them to go back as wild as they came in.”

The work means dodging the bites of sharp seal teeth, fleas of hedgehogs, and smelly spits of fulmars - although Alison said powerful swans are unexpectedly docile in the hospital.

With 5,000 animals a year to nurse back to health, staff at East Winch get through a fair few themes for names, which are necessary for identification. All the seals are being named after board games and toys at the moment.

Poker's neighbours include thin little Cranium who is just learning to chew fish, and the handsomely-marked Triv named after Trivial Pursuit. Triv curls his head and tail up in a banana shape, which delights Alison. She said: “People think they are contorting themselves and in pain when they do that, but he's really very happy.”

Triv was picked up by divers in Aldeburgh on August 13, weeks before Poker was found, but already Poker is overtaking him when it comes to putting on weight and strengthening his muscles.

It's a stage which Alison still loves to see, after 18 years working in the centre.

She said: “I get my kicks from getting them over the darkest hours of that very sick period, rather than releasing them later. I like nursing them from when they come in, and building them up to fitness again. When they turn the corner and start getting better, that's the most rewarding time.

“You have to try to detach yourself from them, and we have to keep turning cases around as fast as we can, so there is space for new arrivals.”

The centre receives all types of wildlife from birds, deer, hedgehogs to snakes and toads from across East Anglia. Seals are brought in by the RSPCA's collection officers from Wales, and the north east, Scotland, Jersey and Guernsey.

When a member of the public brings an animal in, they say goodbye at the door to the vet's corridor and never know how it fares. So we enter the secret inner sanctum of the hospital, to see what happens next.

Vets check the creatures and tests are referred to the in-house laboratory, or sent off for analysis.

In a corner of the vet surgery, a baby roe deer sits in a box, concussed after being hit by a car. Its eyes are wide open, but it doesn't move. It has had steroids to boost its body back to life, but so far the outlook is grim. The vets can't win every time.

They also face the eternal battle of removing fishing hooks and line from swans' necks, and getting the message through to anglers to take their debris home.

The 'box room' is stacked with cages, including a crashed sparrowhawk with a broken wing, and a little owl which can't fly well and looks very thin. There's also a tiny dehydrated hedgehog which is receiving fluids under its skin, and a fulmar which needs to be taken for a wash after its cohort spat at it.

We take the fulmar to be hosed down, then don white wellies and paper suits to visit the isolation ward where newly-arrived animals are kept in cubicles.

Sick seal pups with pneumonia can steam in the cubicle, to ease their breathing. I help feed Cranium some fish and see how sharp his teeth are, then lend a hand scrubbing the floor, as hygiene is very important.

In a pen outside, staff are catching ducks to release and already have ten boxes packed. Some fly in circles because of one weaker wing, and need longer to recover. Staff have to sort the patients from other wild ducks which have flown in to freeload from the ready supply of food.

But seals are by far the hospital's main workload over summer months, after the pups are born in June.

Now hedgehogs will start coming in before the winter. A staggering 155 hedgehogs were kept at the centre last winter. “They were absolutely everywhere,” said Alison. We couldn't move for hedgehogs!”

They couldn't be released until January, when the danger of freezing was over.

This year looks set to be a bumper year, with the numbers of patients already exceeding what the RSPCA's budget had provided for.

It could be December before Poker is well enough to be released. We'll follow his progress…


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1988: The centre started when the RSPCA along with Greenpeace, responded to the seal distemper virus which struck common seals in the North Sea. An emergency seal assessment centre was set up in Docking, Norfolk, in a disused bus shelter, by the local council.

After this emergency, the RSPCA continued to treat sick and injured seals and started to take in other British wildlife.

1992: The centre moved to East Winch and became known as the RSPCA Norfolk Wildlife Hospital - now called RSPCA East Winch Wildlife Centre. Facilities and workload increased dramatically following the move.

2003 Following a review of the previous ten years, it was decided that it was time to place a greater emphasis on the final stage of the rehabilitation work - to find out more about how the animals behave and integrate after release.

Today: The centre is now renowned for its care of orphaned, sick or injured seals but it treats all species of British wildlife, with birds making up 80per cent of casualties.

1 ophans' room

2 swan pools

3 seal pools

3 paddocks

9 aviaries

17 cubicles in the isolation ward, 9 with pools

22 staff and 15 volunteers

5,000 animals a year