Twenty-month-old Cruz is a healthy, high-energy California sea lion pup. Only when you notice his sightless eyes do you realize that he bounds around guided solely by sound and scent.
Cruz is one of two rescued California sea lions that Shedd introduced to the public this week.
The other is Tanner, a 5-year-old, 500-pound male who came to the aquarium through Shedd’s involvement in a government effort to find zoo and aquarium homes for wild sea lions that have taken a serious toll on an endangered salmon population in Oregon.
Ken Ramirez, Shedd’s executive vice president of animal care and training, said, “Thanks to a partnership with federal and state wildlife officials in the Pacific Northwest, we were able to provide a home for these two incredible animals.”
Cruz, an agile 60-pounder, was found in early July on a Santa Cruz, California, beach. Lethargic and blind, he was rushed by rescuers to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.
At the center, veterinarians stabilized the pup and examined him to determine what was wrong with his eyes. An X-ray showed bullet fragments that had destroyed his right eye and blinded the left.
Cruz is one of more than 180 wild sea lions admitted to the center in the last dozen years with gunshot wounds, often to the face. Blinded animals that survive cannot go back into the wild. As staff members at the Marine Mammal Center nursed the pup back to health, they also worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has jurisdiction over this protected marine mammal species, to identify an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facility equipped for the special lifelong care Cruz would need. They found Shedd.
“Cruz is a special rescue case, and options for finding him a home were limited,” Ken said. “We were thrilled to offer him a permanent home where he can thrive with other sea lions.”
Ken, who has more than 35 years of experience training marine mammals, traveled to the center to start working with the pup right away (video above). “We approach training a blind sea lion like Cruz in the same way we train our other animals, but instead of using visual targets, we use audio cues such as a rattle, along with verbal cues.
“Building trusting relationships is the cornerstone to providing the highest-quality care for our animals, especially in Cruz’s case,” Ken continued. “We have to be his eyes, which requires a solid bond between animal and trainer.” He said that since Cruz arrived at Shedd in December, the young sea lion has become comfortable relying on the animal care team to guide him and has made impressive progress.
“He has a fearless personality and eagerness to learn—two characteristics that indicated we could provide him with a strong quality of life through training.”
Cruz learned to target, or touch his nose to a long-handled rattle, during his stay at the Marine Mammal Center. He also responds to “follow,” “wait,” “water” “down” and several other words. He eagerly takes food given by hand, but he is also becoming adept at tracking herring pitched into his pool.
Ken explained, “When a fish hits the water, a blind animal can track its movement partly by sound and partly by feeling the ripples created as the food moves.” But the pup would be unable to detect prey—or predators—in the wild.
In his new home, Cruz can be a powerful ambassador for his species as Shedd tells his story to more than 2 million guests each year.
“Cruz’s story is indicative of a problem that we see in many stranding situations,” said Ken. “Animals are used for target practice by some boaters or shot with malicious intent by area fishermen for cutting into their catch and profit.”
Tanner’s story is one of trying to make a living in a disrupted aquatic environment. His age-old prey, Chinook salmon, are struggling to survive, and the sea lions are unintentionally overfishing the critically endangered species. Tanner was among a group that found easy pickings at the “fish ladders” that allow Chinook to scale the Bonneville Dam to reach their historic upstream spawning pools.
In the past, sea lions that repeatedly frequented the fish ladders were sacrificed to protect the salmon. The partnership between wildlife agencies and accredited marine mammal facilities such as Shedd has been a win-win solution for the fish and the sea lions.
Tanner, who was named for Tanner Creek, near the dam, will get to know another salmon-poacher, Biff, who came to Shedd through the relocation program in 2009, and Ty, who appears in the aquatic shows. The four sea lions will divide their time between reserve pools and individual appearances in the Abbott Oceanarium’s Grainger Sea Lion Cove.
“Tanner’s and Cruz’s stories bring awareness and compassion to the animals and the environment,” Ken said, “and make meaningful connections with guests to think about our own impact on their habitats.”
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Tanner and Cruz have something in common with green sea turtle Nickel and sea otters Kachemak, Mari, Kiana and Cayucos. All were rescued animals that Shedd provided a home to because they could not be returned to the wild.
Karen Furnweger, web editor