SEA Lab nurtures tiny steeds of the deep

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Posted by on November 19, 2005 at 23:45:17:

In Reply to: Seahorses Rescued From Smugglers posted by on November 18, 2005 at 15:59:44:

A team of endangered seahorses seized at LAX have grown into a small herd with the help of the Redondo Beach aquarium.

By Josh Grossberg

Sea horse. Sea horse have babies.

When a team of sickly sea horses arrived illegally at Los Angeles International Airport, customs officials faced a dilemma: whether to destroy them or try to reel them back to health. The SEA Lab in Redondo Beach ponied up and two months later, the question mark-shaped fish not only didn't tank -- they're reproducing. Their condition?

They're doing swimmingly.

"When they came in, no way I expected all of them to survive," said the SEA Lab's Brent Scheiwe, who was in charge of the crusty critters. "It's great we had 100 percent survival."

Delicate under the best of circumstances, the eight 5-inch sea horses had been bagged and boxed before enduring a 19-hour plane ride from Vietnam. So when, under the care of Scheiwe, they became pregnant, it caught experts by surprise. They gave birth Nov. 12.

"He played a little Barry White for them and lo and behold," said SEA Lab Director Giancarlo Cetrulo, who wasn't sure how to finish his next sentence. "They're so comfortable that they, we like to say, dot, dot, dot."

What will catch many readers by surprise is the fact that it's the sea horse male who gets pregnant.

"That's one of the weird thing about sea horses," Scheiwe said. "The female transfers eggs into his pouch. He'll fertilize them and give them a live birth."

Scheiwe became suspicious when one of the five male's bellies started to grow.

"Their pouches get really big," he said.

More than 100 babies were born, but only 20 survived. They were quickly quarantined because big sea horses like to eat them.

"The odds are definitely against them," Scheiwe said.

If the fish were going to have a chance, it was going to be at SEA Lab, a program of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. Although the facility specializes in animals from colder climes, they built a special tank for the sea horses.

"This is our first foray into tropical species," Cetrulo said. "Otherwise they would have been destroyed. We expanded our operations to include warm water friends because we didn't want them to die."

Sea horses are popular with the aquarium set, but they are endangered and illegal to import.

It wasn't the first time someone tried to sneak a rare animal into the airport, said Michael Fleming, a spokesman for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.

There was the man who tried to sneak a monkey into town in his underpants. And the guy who tied a live snake around his waist. Or the man who stuffed some birds into his suitcase, only to have them fly away when officials looked inside.

"A woman tried to smuggle a parrot in her blouse," he said. "Turned out she tried to sedate it by getting it drunk."

For Cetrulo, smuggling animals is no laughing matter. And he blames consumers for helping to create a market for them.

"It's crazy what people will do and it's all because we the consumer will pay incredible prices," he said.

By showcasing the sea horses, Cetrulo hopes to raise awareness on the issue.

"Our ultimate goal is to use the sea horses for people to be careful about the things they buy," he said. "They need to ask where animals come from and ensure that they were collected from a place that doesn't use destructive or illegal means."

And with the fish thriving, it's likely that the lab will have to find more space for them.

"It looks like another male is pregnant," Scheiwe said.

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