Sick Hawaiian Monk Seal Showing Improvement But Not Out of Danger

Feb 8, 2020

A sick Hawaiian monk seal under the care of wildlife scientists suffering from a parasitic infection often spread via feral cat feces has been showing signs of improvement this week, according to officials.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials determined that the seal was suffering from toxoplasmosis, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

In an update Thursday, NOAA said the monk seal has slowly improved, although she remains in intensive care and requires daily medications and nutritional support.

The female seal, known as Pohaku or R028, was taken from Ko Olina on Oahu to the agency for monitoring after reports she was “logging,” or lethargically floating on the water.

There are an estimated 50,000 to 300,000 feral cats on Oahu and they are a primary source of toxoplasmosis, a parasite that reproduces in the digestive system of cats, the agency said on its website.

Hawaiian monk seals are exposed to the parasitic eggs spread by cat feces when they consume contaminated prey or water, the NOAA said.

Toxoplasmosis can destroy muscle, liver, heart, and brain tissue and cause organ failure. There is no vaccine and treatment options for infected seals are extremely limited.

In its update, NOAA said administering medication and supplements for a 500-pound wild seal takes five to six people.

"Fortunately, all this hard work is starting to make a difference. This week, her strength improved enough that she was able to swim in the rehabilitation pool. She even consumed a handful of fish during her swims—an appetite is another sign that she is starting to respond positively to treatment," according to the NOAA update.

Eleven Hawaiian monk seals are known to have died from toxoplasmosis, although the number is likely higher because of unreported cases.

Toxoplasmosis affects other marine animals including spinner dolphins and native birds including alala, or Hawaiian crows.