Sausalito’s Marine Mammal Center buoyed by business donor help

The Marin County nonprofit that has spent years rescuing mammals is facing its own persistent challenge of its budgets, staff and volunteer crews.

The Marine Mammal Center, fully established in 1975 in Sausalito, is the largest hospital for marine mammals in the world. The 125,000-square-foot center tends to mammals rescued from 600 miles of coastline from Humboldt County south to San Luis Obispo. It also runs a satellite facility to treat monk seals on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Once one of 12 Bay Area Cold War-era Nike missile sites with underground silos that now house the facility’s water filtration system, the center shares a storied past as colorful as its 130 inhabitants. At any given turn around their pens, it’s hard to miss the bark, squeal or groan from one of these curious and ridiculously cute pinnipeds with nametags like Pixel, Mushroom, Naples or Rufus.

In many respects, the mammals’ growing presence in this Marin County hospital tells us just as much about our environment as their health, according to the mammal center.

“We call them sentinels because they offer a window into the health of the ocean,” center spokesman Giancarlo Rulli told the Business Journal on a May 4 visit to the facility. Rulli joked he’s honed the crucial skill of churning out herring smoothies in industrial-strength type blenders for the pinnipeds, which eat about 1,000 pounds a day of the fish during the busy season from March to June.

Beyond dealing with the cases of cancer and other blunt-force trauma injuries seen in mammals, the center’s latest, increasing health care threat involves a debilitating disease called sarcocystis.

The disease resembles the human form of muscular dystrophy, but it attacks sea lions and sea otters. Like the human version, the disease progresses with the mammals gradually losing control of their muscles including the lungs, which eventually stop working.

Between 2001 and 2015, the center diagnosed 39 cases among sea lions with the disease. But then after 2015, the number of cases surged to 38 in just two years.

Dr. Cara Field, the center’s veterinarian and medical director, told the Business Journal she started seeing the surge in sarcocystis in 2015.

In addition to the surge, the origin of this disease has mystified scientists because it’s believed to have evolved from wild or domestic animals on land, predominantly from the feces of possums, Field indicated.

“That’s why we’re concerned. We had only seen this on land (before), and now it’s in the marine environment,” she said.

That concern comes with the remote chance the disease may enter the human population, since both people and pinnipeds eat mussels, clams and crab.

The mammals that do recover are sent out with satellite tags, so the vets may track their progress. The tech-driven system delivers data indicating if they’re alive, their locations and how deep they’re diving.

Chief External Relations Officer Jeff Boehm, the center’s former CEO who decided to step down from running the nonprofit to make time for his new role, effective in January, described his “front line” view of the environment’s changing scene “dizzying.” With that, the pressure on the budget and resources to treat whatever oceanic problem mammals experience has also mounted at break-neck rate.

In 2008, the mammal center operated on a $4 million budget, with 40 staffers and 800 volunteers. Now it requires $17 million, 110 employees and 1,200 volunteers. The center has seven boats at the ready, including four inflatables, to perform rescue missions.

Boehm, who was introduced to the center in 1981 as a volunteer before moving into management decades later, discovered through the years that even those caring for the mammals needed some mental care themselves upon the growing plague of sarcocystis in 2015. When facing its biggest modern-day challenge, the facility responded by bringing in mental health counselors to offer therapy for workers suffering from “compassion fatigue,” the veterinarian mentioned.

“It really tested us. That was our wake-up call — that forever we’d have to anticipate a need for whatever comes our way,” said Boehm, who served a 16-year management stint at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago before returning to the West Coast to fulfill the center’s executive director. That post had morphed into the CEO position.

The center also beefed up its network of contributors, meaning companies and individuals that donate time and money to the cause. Although it’s currently closed to the public due to the pandemic and now renovations, the center has hosted tours, events and performed outreach to companies and individuals, the latter making up the majority of the funding sources. Three percent of its funding comes from corporate giving.

The Bunker Road facility manages 20,000 individual and corporate donors, including Private Ocean wealth advisers in San Rafael and Peninsula-based Oracle. Collectively, the center receives more than 60,000 gifts this year. The center has more than doubled the number and value of gifts it’s received in the last decade. Now, it relies on $3.5 million, up from $1.7 million retrieved about 10 years ago.

“We’re fundraising all the time. We’re investing more in future resources for when the next sea lion pandemic emerges,” he said, noting that 10% of its annual revenue comes from government. “People would be surprised how a nonprofit runs like a business.”

Corporate America to the rescue

According to Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, an online charity data research organization, U.S. companies valued at more than $7 trillion increased donations to nonprofit groups from $25.7 billion in 2018 to $36.6 billion last year.

Oracle based in Redwood Shores started giving to the center in 2008, with this year’s annual donation amounting to $110,000. The tech giant’s staffers also donate time, cleaning pens and pools as well as helping to exercise the mammals. These activities make up a part of their Oracle jobs the employees enjoy, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship Colleen Cassity told the Business Journal.

Oracle developed an entire corporate grant-funding program with three focus areas used to select a lucky nonprofit — education, environment and community. Cassity noted the center meets all three criteria in what she called a “trifecta” of benefit qualifications.

“This type of philanthropy is good for companies,” she said. “Being a good citizen is important. We exist in the natural world, and it’s incredibly important to take care of the planet.”

Corporate giving may not be a new concept, but it’s receiving more attention from companies, nonprofit groups point out.

“We’re hearing about more of this. We’re seeing more of an appreciation among workers to work for companies that have their values,” said Rick Cohen, spokesman for the National Council of Nonprofits based in Washington, D.C. “They feel if they can’t work for a nonprofit, they can at least work for a company that cares about the environment and being a good citizen of the world.”

That’s precisely what Private Ocean founder and CEO Greg Friedman saw. His epiphany came after taking a tour at the center about five years ago.

The wealth investment firm, which is now a company folded into Wealthspire of New York since December, created a plan in which every dollar an employee gives is matched by $3 from the company. Private Ocean averages about $100,000 per year in donations to the center, plus staffers will donate time as part of its “ESG” strategy, meaning it has policies intended for environmental, social and business-governance improvement.

When asked why business should care about giving back, Friedman said giving back has contributed to his company “doing well” and his employees experiencing pride in where they work. Private Ocean grew to $2.7 billion in managed assets by the time Wealthspire took it in.

“You know when they say ‘be a part of something greater than yourself.’ That’s what I expected to get out of it,” he said.

The unexpected bonus materialized in his staffers and clients commending the efforts.

“If a CEO isn’t doing something out there, it’s a real miss. Our clients love that we’re helping the Marine Mammal Center. I like that it has a big opportunity to influence change (in the environment)” he said. “None of us know how to save a seal, but we know how to raise money.”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or

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