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Amber Becerra had just joined the Marine Mammal Care Center as a board member in October 2019, when it was discovered the nonprofit was in financial crisis.
“There were four of us women at the time, and that was it,” said Becerra. “When we were faced with this reality, we all sort of looked at each other, and we said, there’s absolutely no way we’re letting this place go down.”
But without any funding, and a yearly budget of $1.6 million, there was a strong possibility the center wouldn’t survive, said Becerra.
The Marine Mammal Care Center was initially founded in 1978 as a part of Marineland of the Pacific, a public oceanarium and tourist attraction founded in Los Angeles County in 1954.
When Marineland ultimately closed in 1987, its hospital remained.
A couple of years later, it became its own facility, officially opening at its new site at Fort MacArthur in 1992, a former military base in San Pedro, where the center has remained since.
Marineland’s original investors continued to finance the hospital until 2015 when they decided they no longer wanted to be in the marine space at all, said Becerra.
The next year, the center was incorporated as a nonprofit and continued operating with a sum of money granted by the original investors.
By the time Becerra joined the board three years later, the funds had dwindled almost entirely.
“We had to make the decision between paying our staff or buying fish for our patients,” said Becerra.
Without any funds to pay the existing staff, Becerra took on the role of president as a volunteer, pulling the organization afloat as her top priority.
“I went to the public and said, ‘We’re facing closure, we’re a nonprofit, we rely on public support entirely and we have no funding, please help us,’” said Becerra.
With the goal of raising $1 million in six months, Becerra and the board had no idea if this was achievable.
“If you had looked at it objectively, you probably would have said, ‘There’s no way you guys are going to succeed,’” said Becerra. “But the universe had a better plan.”
Not only did the center reach its goal, but it exceeded it, raising $1.4 million in just six months.
“The fact that we were able to do that, that the community rallied around us and stepped up and not only came to the rescue in that moment, but has continued to support us on an ongoing basis . . . has been pretty incredible, and almost nearly impossible,” said Becerra.
As the organization began to stabilize, finding a permanent president proved to be a challenge given the recent crisis, said Becerra.
“At the time, I was doing like six people’s jobs, so it was quite an ask to find a new CEO that wanted to step into that position,” Becerra said.
Becerra agreed to remain as CEO for another year, with the goal of moving the center closer to stability before finding her replacement.
Since then, the Marine Mammal Care Center has flourished, and visitors from around the world come to the center to witness animal care with the goal of release back into the wild, unlike a zoo or aquarium that provides an experience based on animals in captivity, said Becerra.
“It really does feel like we are remediating some of the disastrous environmental harm that’s happening out there, in a tangible and effective way, which is really powerful,” Becerra said.
As one of the busiest marine mammal hospitals in the country, covering 70 miles of coastline, and as the only marine mammal facility open 24/7, 365 days a year in L.A. County, the hospital cares for an average of 350 patients a year.
During years of unusual mortality events (such as during El Niño years), the nonprofit may see upward of 700 animals, said Becerra. Many animals come to the hospital due to parasites, littering, fishing line entanglement and malnourishment.
While patients aren’t typically named, some become an exception, such as Bjorn, a 400-pound adult male sea lion who was brought to the hospital with a shark bite as well as a gunshot wound that had caused blindness.
“Probably most facilities would have just given up on that animal,” said Becerra, but instead, the Marine Mammal Care Center continued to monitor him.
Due to his blindness, he was unable to be released back into the wild, so the hospital embarked on a mission to find him a home in a zoo or an aquarium—a usually impossible feat for adult male sea lions, who are typically aggressive and territorial, explained Becerra.
But this was anything but the case with Bjorn.
The staff trained him how to hand feed and how to listen to certain commands, and he became almost a surrogate mother to the many pups who’d come to the facility.
“He would help them get fish, he would be protective over them, just really an incredibly sweet animal,” said Becerra.
While finding him a home still proved to be difficult, as it was the middle of the pandemic when zoos and aquariums were closing down, eventually, Bjorn found a home at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington.
“He manages to get around his exhibit, despite the fact that he’s blind, and he’s a really special animal that can teach people, as an ambassador of a species, about sea lions and the threats that face them, like being shot, being preyed on by sharks, and hopefully just inspire people to want to try to help these animals as much as they can,” Becerra said.
Inspiring ocean conservation is a key mission of the Care Center, and since stabilizing, it has expanded from more than just a seal and sea lion hospital to offering a robust educational program and research branch as well.
The education department now not only has its own staff but earlier this year, introduced an Equity and Education program, with the goal of bringing students of color from under-resourced communities to the facility, said Becerra.
Students participate in a fish dissection, learn about the food chain, and see how that connects to the work at the center, she said.
“We’re really able to reach children that are not typically getting access to this type of science education, and a lot of students that have not even seen the ocean before coming out to our facility and getting this hands-on learning,” said Becerra. “That’s been an amazing program to launch and kind of beyond my wildest dreams when I first started.”
This year alone, around 12,000 students have visited the Care Center in person.
“There’s something about our center and the work that we do that’s extremely impactful and can be life-changing,” said Becerra. “The fact that we’re changing lives and truly are inspiring the next generation of scientists and conservationists and folks that are going to actually be out there trying to help and change the world themselves is one of the most powerful things that that we’re able to do.”
This year, the Mammal Care Center celebrates its 30th anniversary, and Becerra is ready to move on from her role as president, recently announcing her plans to return to the board in a volunteer capacity.
“Things are looking up for the Marine Mammal Care Center for sure, and we’re really hopeful that a new leader will take us into a growth phase now that we’ve hit a point of stability,” she said.
The search for the next CEO is expected to take five or six months, said Becerra, who hopes that the Marine Mammal Care Center’s future will include either an expansion or a move to a larger location, to accommodate all of the animals that need care.
“I really enjoyed just thinking as big as possible, dreaming, and not letting anything get in the way, or a fear of failure prevent us from being the best possible place that we can be, which is kind of a big deal when you consider we were about to close our doors,” Becerra said.
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