An anxious crowd quickly encircled the sea lion. Lying prone on El Porto beach, it was foaming at the mouth, with red bulging eyes. "Do something," a fat man in a too-tight Lakers T-shirt yelled out.
Suddenly, a white Ford F-250 bristling with hoops and nets stopped a few feet away. Peter Wallerstein jumped out and asked the crowd to give the animal some breathing room.
From the truck, he pulled a large hoop net and slowly circled the sick sea lion. When it began to move, Wallerstein cut off its path to the ocean. He danced around until he placed the hoop over the animal's head and maneuvered it to the bottom of the net. He lowered to the sand a steel cage from the back of the truck and pulled the beast into the cage.
Then, before taking the sea lion to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, Wallerstein quietly explained to the crowd what had just happened. His diagnosis: another case of domoic acid poisoning, caused by an outbreak of red algae bloom.
"Part of our job is to educate the public," he says later.
That rescue last summer was one of more than 4,000 marine mammal rescues the 60-year-old Wallerstein has performed. Hundreds more sick birds and other animals have found their way to his office.
As the only marine mammal rescue specialist on the West Coast, Wallerstein oversees the ocean and shore from Pacific Palisades south to Long Beach. The ruggedly handsome waterman rises at dawn and patrols the shoreline 365 days a year. "In 25 years, I've never missed a rescue call," he says. But he wistfully confesses that Pumpkin, the little rescue mutt who rides shotgun in his truck, is his closest companion. "I'd like to find a girlfriend," he admits, "but it would have to be someone who shares my empathy for animals."
Before he settled on his vocation, it was left to lifeguards and animal-control officers in coastal towns. "They did the best they could," Wallerstein says, "but I had a vision that it could be done much better."
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Using his savings and donations from sympathetic friends, he started patrolling the beach in the mid-'80s, looking for animals to rescue. He met resistance from lifeguards and shoreline town officials, but his professionalism and competence won them over. By the mid-'90s, Wallerstein had contracts with cities up and down the Southern California coast, and five years ago he merged his operation with Friends of Animals.
Wallerstein runs his organization as a nonprofit, with an annual budget of $150,000. He lives in a donated RV, which he parks at the beach in Dockweiler State Park, like a modern-day Jim Rockford. His charity recently acquired land near Dockweiler for a state-of-the-art Marine Mammal and Rescue Rehabilitation Center, for which he is trying to raise $10 million. He has pledges from Clint Eastwood, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Pierce Brosnan. (For more information or to donate, go to marspecialists.org.)
"I want this to continue when I'm dead and gone," he says.