On any given day, you might find Peter Wallerstein throwing a long-handled net over the head of a sea lion anywhere along the Los Angeles County coast.
On a recent day, an unconscious sea lion twitched in the throes of a seizure in the back of his pickup truck.
The animal was shaking because of a neurotoxin – domoic acid, produced by algae – in its system. It’s Wallerstein’s job to respond to calls about these and other animals in distress when they wash up on the shore.
He is one of the only people – if not the only one – on the county coast and west to Catalina Island who provides marine animal rescue services. He’s the director of a nonprofit called Marine Animal Rescue, which networks with local agencies to make sure they know he’s the guy to call when an animal needs help. After more than 20 years doing this work, many people with responsibilities tied to the coast know Wallerstein’s name.
“I’m like a paramedic without a hospital,” he said.
Last year, he rescued 430 animals. This year, the number already exceeds 200. Since he started this work in the mid-1980s, he estimates he has rescued some 4,000 animals, mostly sea lions, but other animals too, including about a dozen whales, over the years. He usually uses a net to do the capture.
His entire life is built around the job; he keeps two cellphones with him at all times, one of which is a hotline number specifically for people to call if they see a marine animal somewhere it shouldn’t be. He lives in his RV park at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey, where he keeps his rescue boat and pickup truck parked next to the RV.
It can get lonely, with just his cat in his RV to keep him company much of the time, but as those who work with him have noticed, he makes sacrifices for his passion.
“My take with Peter is, it’s more of a labor of love than a lucrative endeavor,” said Los Angeles County lifeguard captain Kyle Daniels. The lifeguards call Wallerstein when there’s a marine animal that needs help. “Peter’s a great resource to us because we don’t always have the personnel to assist with marine life.”
Even with help from lifeguards and patrol officers, Wallerstein said, few people are trained to do his job, and some days it’s a challenge to be the only one. Sometimes animals don’t survive, and sometimes he must contend with a backlog at the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, the only place around he can take them, which makes it hard to get animals help if they need it before being returned to the water.
This time of year, he sees a lot of domoic acid poisoning, which can be deadly. He also gets calls about animals found in creeks or onshore, like a sea lion recently found in the Ballona Wetlands. It’s his job to get those animals back to the ocean.
“Usually with big animals, I’m always scared, and maybe that’s why I’ve only been bit once in 29 years,” he said. “Because I respect them as wild animals.”
A scar on his forearm shows a line where a sea lion bit him years ago. He said their bites are 10 times stronger than those of a pitbull.
He still remembers his first rescue clearly: A whale and her offspring were wrapped in fishing nets off the coast of Palos Verdes. With the help of a few others, Wallerstein was able to cut both animals free.
“I was quite elated, but I had things in perspective. I knew every call wasn’t gonna end up like that. I knew we’d have some tough calls,” he said.
Men who pass his RV on bikes stopped to say hello and mentioned that they saw him recently doing some rescues on Venice Beach and Manhattan Beach. People usually recognize him because he’s the only one who does his type of work, he said.
He hasn’t had a vacation in many years because he has to be on call at any hour of the day or night.
“I have to be ready to go at any moment,” he said. Last year, for example, a call around midnight from the sheriff led him to a Verizon store just off the coast, where a sea lion had somehow turned up at the door.
In the future, he hopes to hire a couple of people to help him, and at 62, he thinks about retiring some day. But that’s later. For now, he is fundraising to create a new rescue center closer to Dockweiler so more resources will be available for the animals he rescues.
And he’s ready to dash to a rescue at a moment’s notice.
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