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Volunteering benefits people and animals alike

August 4th, 2008

Huitt helps out around 10 hours a week at the rehabilitation center at the University of New England in Biddeford, down from 40 hours a week last summer. The Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center works with four types of seals and, more rarely, dolphins, harbor porpoises and sea turtles. Huitt's primary responsibilities include feeding, helping with basic medical treatments and cleaning up after injured and abandoned baby harbor seals before they are re-released into the wild.

"I look at it as educational," Huitt said, adding that he enjoys working with other volunteers and staff. "You get friendly and really build relationships," Huitt said.

Huitt is a biology student at the University of Southern Maine. After selling building products for 32 years, he decided to change careers. He knew he wanted to work with animals and learn to do something he could pursue for the rest of his life.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Huitt fed whole herring to several month-old harbor seals. After donning plastic, orange overalls, Huitt brought a bucket of six-inch herring onto a platform above a room with a saltwater pool surrounded by a handful of seals. Once Huitt started to throw fish into the pool, the seals jumped in as well.

Huitt said he tries not to let the seals see him, stressing that it is important that they don't become habituated to humans or associate fish with people. At the same time as he works around the seals, Huitt said he is always observing their behavior.

"Volunteers can be our eyes and ears for what may be happening with an animal," said volunteer coordinator Anne Watson, stressing that as the only rehabilitation center in the state, the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center depends on volunteers. It has more than 70 volunteers from 18 to 76 years old but could always use more.

"We would be so exhausted if we had to do everything," Watson said. "Volunteers are essential to this program."

Watson herself started as a volunteer in 2002, later moving into a grant-funded volunteer coordinator position. It was the animals that drew her in, Watson said. "It's amazing what you learn," Watson said. "The job is never the same day twice."

Watson said individuals often become friends with fellow volunteers, as they work the same shift or shifts every week. The rehabilitation center also hosts an annual barbecue for all volunteers to get to know each other.

Volunteering for organizations such as the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center benefits both communities and individuals, said Rochelle Runge of the Maine Commission for Community Service.

"The real heart of volunteering is helping the community," Runge said. "It's a great way to learn new skills, make new friends and get involved on an issue you're passionate about." Runge also said volunteering is a good way to get to know your community and gain experience in a new field.

In a partnership with the United Way and other groups, the Maine Commission for Community Service maintains a website,, with hundreds of volunteer opportunities across the state.

Huitt drives 98 miles round-trip from Poland to volunteer at the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center. He also volunteers at the New Gloucester Fish Hatchery and responds to strandings of marine animals with the Department of Marine Resources.

"It's like a classroom," Huitt said of his volunteer work.

The harbor seals with which he works need rehabilitation because they were found sick, injured or separated from their mothers. The seal pups were born between the middle of May and the middle of June, with mothers nursing for around four weeks.

Sometimes mother seals leave their pups on the beach to look for fish and come back to find humans on the beach. They might leave their pups on the beach until the people go away, or they might abandon their pups altogether. When people come across stranded marine animals, Watson said, they should keep their distance from the animals and call 1-800-532-9551.

At the rehabilitation center their goal is to fatten up the seals and get them to eat fish on their own. Once they reach 50 pounds, they are re-released into the wild.

Huitt said he enjoys watching the seals heal and grow. Though he tries not to get attached to the animals, he said he can't help it. "I definitely have become addicted to the seals," Huitt said.

Other environmental organizations also depend heavily on volunteers, such as local land trusts and the Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton.

Executive Director of Lakes Environmental Association Peter Lowell said the group's two major volunteer efforts are trail maintenance at Holt Pond and Pondicherry Park and boat inspections looking for invasive plants.

"We just don't have enough staff or money to pay staff to keep up with either of those," Lowell said, adding that LEA provides training for both groups of volunteers. Individuals interested in volunteering can email Lowell at

Those interested in volunteering at the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center can contact Anne Watson at 602-2600.

By Julia Davis