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AFCEC biologist helps rehab hundreds of sea pups 

Christine Rodriguez with a seal statue

Christine Rodriguez, an environmental specialist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, poses with a statue of Elmo, an adult northern elephant seal outside the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. Rodriguez, based at AFCEC’s Travis Air Force Base Installation Support Section, has been volunteering with the center for two years. (Courtesy photo)

Christine Rodriguez and husband on San Francisco's Baker Beach.

Christine Rodriguez, an environmental specialist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, poses for a photo with her husband Joseph Nath at San Francisco's Baker Beach. The couple were on the beach to see sea pup Toffee released after her recovery at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. Rodriguez, based at AFCEC’s Travis Air Force Base Installation Support Section, has been volunteering with the center for two years and had a hand in Toffee's recovery. (Courtesy photo)

Sea pup sniffs the ocean air.

Sea pup Toffee sniffs the sea air before ambling back in to the Pacific Ocean during her release. Toffee was nursed back to health by a medical team and volunteers like the Air Force Civil Engineer Center's Christine Rodriguez. (Courtesy photo)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – When it comes to rescuing seals and sea lions, Christine Rodriguez has learned to take things step by step. 

“It’s all baby steps,” said Rodriguez, an Air Force Civil Engineer Center environmental specialist and trained biologist. “From treating illnesses and injuries to teaching them to eat fish so they can survive in the wild, their rehabilitation revolves around little steps that move them from rescue to release.”

Rodriguez’s keen understanding of the road that leads rescued animals back to their ocean home started when she volunteered at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, shortly after joining the Travis AFB Installation Support Section in December 2019.

“It is important to me to try to make the world better however I can,” she said. “I think we can do that through our jobs, but we can also do that outside our jobs.”  

The Marine Mammal Center is a huge animal rescue and rehabilitation facility featuring large pools and state-of-the-art veterinary suites nestled in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. With previous experience at zoos and animal shelters, Rodriguez said the center felt like a perfect fit. She completed her training in January 2020, which got her in under the wire before COVID-19 arrived.  

“The center stopped taking new volunteers, but there were still so many patients that needed help,” Rodriguez said. “I met lots of animals that first season.”    

Most of the animals she met were harbor seal pups who had been abandoned by their mothers. Typically, these “big babies” arrive at the center starving because they haven’t yet learned how to eat fish, let alone catch them. Rodriguez would begin the step-by-step process to “beef them up” and get them healthy again. 

“We initially tube feed them so they don’t starve,” she said. “Once they are a little healthier, it’s time for fish school.”  

The first step of fish school is introducing the pups to the fish and encouraging them to swallow. Volunteers then place the fish in the pool and encourage the pups to eat the fish independently. Finally, the fish are tied on a line and quickly dragged through the water to mimic swimming fish.   

“We are trying to get the pups’ instincts to kick in so they will track the fish,” Rodriguez said. “When those instincts kick in, when you see that light bulb go off, it is one of the best feelings in the world.”  

The excitement Rodriguez experienced during her time with her seals during the early days of the COVID pandemic translated into some virtual fun with her Travis AFB team. Kirsten Christopherson, Travis AFB Environmental Quality lead, said she was happy her teammate was able to link in with The Marine Mammal Center during such a challenging time. 

“She brought her positive experiences to our team by sharing photos, videos and stories of her work at the center,” Christopherson said. “Ultimately, her stories brought our team closer together even though we were physically separated.”

Rodriguez wrapped up her first harbor seal pup season in August 2020 and returned to the center in February 2021 for a season full of new challenges. During this recent season, she added a Sunday shift to her already busy Saturday schedule.  

“It really is a second job,” she said, “but they need help and I can’t turn my back on those who need help.” 

Although her crews typically stick to the center and direct patient care, Rodriguez did have an opportunity to participate in the release of one of her patients during the 2021 season. Toffee, a California sea lion, came to the center with an injury sustained during a shark attack. Rodriguez helped the veterinary staff complete Toffee’s final release exam and was invited to attend the sea lion’s official sendoff.  

It was a breezy, cool day when the team released Toffee on the sand at San Francisco’s Baker Beach. The joy Rodriguez felt watching her patient amble across the sand and back into the Pacific Ocean is hard to describe, she said, but the scene gave meaning to the many hours of work and to the thousands of steps it takes to get the marine mammals home.   

“It gave me a sense of pride for sure,” she said. “It reminded me that the work is good, it is important and that what I do is making the world just a little bit better one step at a time.”