An endangered Hawaiian monk seal rescued earlier this month after fishing line was found in its mouth was also suffering from toxoplasmosis.
RW22, a 13-year-old seal, was transported from Oʻahu to the Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola in Kailua-Kona. The animal is receiving care for the disease along with fishing gear ingestion, malnutrition and other ailments.
RW22 was discovered on Oʻahu on Oct. 4 when a tip came in through the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marine wildlife hotline regarding the animal with a fishing line in its mouth.
NOAA experts worked with the Hawaii Marine Animal Response and community members to locate the seal and were able to successfully rescue RW22 on Oct. 6. The team initially transported the seal to NOAA’s Inouye Regional Center where an x-ray revealed the ingested fishing gear.
Due to RW22’s deteriorated condition, NOAA determined additional care was necessary and initiated travel plans. The US Coast Guard airlifted the seal that same day on a C-130 aircraft, to Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center on the Big Island.
“This monk seal is a challenging case because we’re treating for toxoplasmosis, a complex and potentially deadly disease that requires daily management,” says Dr. Sophie Whoriskey, The Marine Mammal Center’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Veterinarian. “As the only partner organization permitted by NOAA Fisheries to treat and rehabilitate Hawaiian monk seals, we’re proud to be able to support patients like RW22, and we will do everything we can to give this endangered animal a second chance in the wild.”
Experts say toxoplasmosis, which is spread into the environment exclusively via cat feces, is one of the main threats and leading causes of death facing the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population in the main Hawaiian Islands.
Initial results from RW22’s blood work confirmed the animal has been exposed to toxoplasmosis, an extremely worrying result due to the historical poor long-term prognosis for this disease. Toxoplasmosis can cause brain infections and muscle tremors, the latter of which veterinarians observed in RW22.
The Center’s team has started RW22 on a treatment plan to immediately tackle the disease and, in consultation with NOAA, has prioritized stabilizing the 13-year-old animal before considering surgery to remove multiple ingested single-pronged hooks and other gear from his esophagus and stomach, according to a press release from the Marine Mammal Center.
The Center’s veterinary experts are sedating RW22 daily for treatments and are tube feeding him to help boost his hydration and nutritional status. Despite the ingested fishing material, RW22 has been responding well to feedings. He is also being evaluated for a possible left eye injury.
RW22 made the trip from Oʻahu to Kailua-Kona with the help from local responders.
“This was a great team effort, and NOAA is very appreciative of the incredible rapid response by all involved,” said David Schofield, NOAA Fisheries Regional Stranding Coordinator. “Everyone moved as quickly as possible to get RW22 into rehabilitative care for his best chance at survival.”
With no vaccine available for toxoplasmosis, officials say preventative measures must be taken by the general public. To help protect endangered Hawaiian monk seals like RW22 from toxoplasmosis, simply dispose of cat litter in the trash, keep cats safe indoors and tell community about how they too can prevent this disease from harming more marine mammals.
The public should keep a safe distance from monk seals and report sightings on Hawai‘i Island to the Center’s response team at the 24-hour hotline: 808-987-0765.
Report hooked, stranded, or entangled monk seals to the NOAA Fisheries statewide toll-free hotline at 888-256-9840. NOAA Fisheries also recommends these best practices to reduce injuries to monk seals when fishing.