Hawaiian monk seal gets CT scan at Big Island hospital

  • The Marine Mammal Center’s staff and volunteers, along with a team from NOAA, transported RH38 to North Hawaii Community Hospital for a CT scan, the first ever performed on a wild Hawaiian monk seal. (The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit #18786/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • During her initial critical care period, veterinarians at The Marine Mammal Center tested Hawaiian monk seal RH38 for dozens of diseases, toxins and parasites. Veterinarians did not find any evidence of toxoplasmosis, leptospirosis, morbillivirus, or influenza, trauma, or poison, though they are not ruling anything out at this point. (The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit #18786/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • A Hawaiian monk seal rescued on Kauai is currently in stable but critical condition at Ke Kai Ola, The Marine Mammal Center’s hospital and visitor center in Kailua-Kona that is dedicated to the endangered marine mammal. (The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit #18786/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • Hawaiian monk seal RH38 was originally admitted to The Marine Mammal Center in August 2017 for malnutrition and a heavy parasite load, and was successfully released back to Kauai. Her current condition appears to be unrelated to her original admit. (Photo by Laura Grote/The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit #18786/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital Director Claire Simeone (left), prepares RH38 for a CT scan at North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea. (The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit #18786/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • Hawaiian monk seal RH38 was originally admitted to The Marine Mammal Center in August 2017 for malnutrition and a heavy parasite load, and was successfully released back to Kauai. Her current condition appears to be unrelated to her original admit. (Photo by Laura Grote/The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit #18786/Special to West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Veterinary experts caring for a critically ill Hawaiian monk seal in Kailua-Kona are awaiting results from a CT scan as they work to pinpoint the underlying causes of the mammal’s illness.

The monk seal, a 3.5-year-old female identified as RH38, is currently in stable but critical condition at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital in Kailua-Kona, hospital Director Claire Simeone said Wednesday. She’s been receiving care there since March 12 after being transported from Kauai.

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The endangered juvenile monk seal, one of 1,400 alive in the wild, is suffering from weakness, infection, broad-scale inflammation and malnutrition.

“We’re incredibly concerned by RH38’s case as every individual is critical to this endangered population,” said Simeone. “We are committed to finding the cause of her illness and are using world-class expertise and medical techniques to keep RH38 alive and get her back to the wild.”

In the wake of her arrival at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority-based hospital, the center’s veterinary experts have provided life-saving and supportive care to the endangered mammal. That’s included performing X-rays, which turned up no sign of metal or other foreign objects in her body, an ultrasound and blood tests.

RH38 has been tested for dozens of diseases, toxins and parasites. Veterinarians did not find any evidence of toxoplasmosis, leptospirosis, morbillivirus, or influenza, trauma, or poison, though they are not ruling anything out at this point.

“She’s continuing to make improvements every day,” Simeone said. “And, it looks like we have her on the right antibiotics because we’re seeing improvements in her blood work. I’m hoping that we’re going to have more final CT results soon.”

The CT scan was conducted about 6 a.m. Easter Sunday at North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea, said Lynn Scully, NHCH spokeswoman. It followed a week’s worth of planning and preparation, including coordinating all the logistics for transport, preparing staff from both hospitals and obtaining the necessary approvals.

“We are so thankful that North Hawaii Community Hospital allowed us,” Simeone said. “We’re just so thankful for their partnership. It’s the first time we had worked with them but they’ve been wonderful to work with and really, really helpful.”

Simeone said Ke Kai Ola turned to the hospital for help becuase the facility does not have a CT scan that could provide more definitive answers.

“She’s been such a complex and confusing case. We cast this wide net and we were ruling things out as we went, but we weren’t seeing the kind of improvements that we needed to see to have a definitive answer and we’d exhausted the types of tests that we have on site,” Simeone said, “so I really wanted to make sure that we gave her the absolutely the best care that we had so it was time to take it to the next level.”

Upon arrival at the hospital’s rear loading dock Easter morning, RH38 was entered officially as “Monk seal, Hawaiian,” Scully said. Staff also called her the “Easter seal” and “Maikalani,” a name chosen by the person who took the first call from the marine mammal hospital.

“Our staff was just so proud that they could help out, especially because it’s an endangered animal. They were really proud to be a part of it,” Scully said noting how impressed NHCH staff was with the marine mammal hospital’s crew and how smoothly the imaging procedure went.

The full-body scan — from nose to tail — will provide experts “a peek inside all of her organs,” Simone said. The monk seal was anesthetized during the procedure.

“That can tell us things like if there is inflammation, evidence of infection, if there is specific organ damage and things like that,” she said. “Blood work and those types of tests that we run give us ideas about things that could help us narrow it down, but those (CT scan) images will help us to really define and confirm” any underlying causes of her illness.

The scan also marked two firsts, one for wild Hawaiian monk seals and the other for the hospital. RH38’s CT scan was the first-ever conducted on a wild Hawaiian monk seal, according to Simeone. And, RH38 was NHCH’s first nonhuman patient.

“We think it’s our first wild animal we’ve ever had,” Scully said.

RH38’s current admittance at Ke Kai Ola isn’t her first. The seal was admitted to the hospital in August 2017 for malnutrition and a heavy parasite load. During her three-month stay, RH38 more than doubled in body weight and was successfully released back to Kauai.

The Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui had been monitoring her over the past year and routinely observed the seal in good body condition, according to the center. But, in March, the seal began to “rapidly lose body condition” prompting transport to Ke Kai Ola.

The monk seal’s current condition appears to be unrelated to her original admit, according to the hospital.

Experts also noted there’s no indication that this is a threat to the larger population of seals, but the marine mammal response team will continue to monitor the population around Kauai.

“No additional sick or malnourished monk seals have been detected across the main Hawaiian Islands,” said Michelle Barbieri, a veterinarian with NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. “We do not currently have any reason to believe that what is affecting RH38 is contagious to the rest of the population.”

The Marine Mammal Center has rehabilitated 27 monk seals since opening Ke Kai Ola in 2014, the majority of which were rescued from and returned to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Including RH38, the facility is currently caring for three monk seals, a juvenile and two pups.

The two pups, Maiapilo and Akulikuli, were rescued from the Laysan Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in September. They were suffering from malnutrition.

“They’re looking great, they’re getting so fat. They’re doing exactly what seals should be doing,” Simeone said, after noting the pups were “awaiting their ship back up to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.”

Outside Ke Kai Ola’s walls, staff and volunteers continue to keep tabs on RA20 and her pup born on March 20 at a Kona Coast beach. The pup, which turned out to be a boy, is awaiting a name from a cultural practitioner as he prepares for weaning, which is expected to commence around the beginning of May.

“That’s the most critical time,” Simoene said, “after weaning he’s just like a toddler.”

Manuiwa, RA20’s first successful pup born last year at the same locale, is also doing good. She is coming up on her first moulting, Simeone said.

And, recently, a new monk seal has been spotted in waters off Kona. Volunteers have dubbed her “No Name Girl.”

Simeone said the seal has temporarily been identified as “900” as staff works with NOAA to determine whether the seal has been observed and documented before.

“Based on scarring or the photographs we’ve sent to them, it’s a seal that has not been observed before,” Simeone said. “That’s really exciting that we have a new seal around.”

NOAA researchers estimate the current monk seal population to be about 1,400 animals, and about 30 percent of those monk seals are alive today directly due to conservation efforts led by NOAA and its partners. About 300 live in the Main Hawaiian Islands; a handful reside in waters off Hawaii Island.

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As always, members of the public should keep a safe distance from monk seals and report sightings on Hawaii Island to the The Marine Mammal Center’s local response team at the 24-hour hotline by calling (808) 987-0765.

Volunteers are also needed at the Kona hospital and visitor center in a variety of roles, including animal care, education and response. Visit www.marinemammalcenter.org/kko-volunteer for more information.

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