LagunaShedd’s newest sea lion is now making appearances on exhibit in the Abbott Oceanarium.

Laguna, a rescued sea lion pup, has made great progress since his arrival at Shedd in late June, says marine mammals director Lisa Takaki. His debut last week in the Grainger Sea Lion Cove was one more step toward his total acclimation here. The 1½-year-old animal is already comfortable in all of the behind-the-scenes sea lion habitats, and he’s mastering what Lisa calls his “ABCs”—the training basics all the marine mammals learn. “He’s doing phenomenally,” she says.

One of the first things he learned was to recognize his shape, a flat blue-and-black football-shaped piece of plexiglass that the trainers use to call him to his station, or spot where they feed and train him. Laguna also targets on, or touches his nose to, a hand-held training tool that he will follow to walk alongside a trainer. And he participates in his own wellness care, loping onto a large, walk-on veterinary scale and sitting still while the trainers weigh him.

“He’s quick and eager to learn—and he’s adorable,” Lisa says.

Life is good for Laguna, but it wasn’t always so.

On Jan. 9, he was found stranded and malnourished on Laguna Beach on the California coast. He weighed 24 pounds—about half what a 6-month-old sea lion should weigh. After intensive care at a marine mammal rescue center, he was released on March 21, weighing 61 pounds.

It’s not unusual for some 8- to 9-month old sea lions, just weaned and on their own, to have trouble finding food and wind up at a rehab center. But Laguna was in the first wave of more than 1,400 emaciated young pups that flooded rescue facilities from January through May all along the Southern California coast—five times the average for that time of year. And those were the ones that were found.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the situation an unusual mortality event, or UME. Rescue centers were overwhelmed. Two Shedd trainers each spent two weeks assisting at a rescue center. “It was intense work,” Lisa says. “They saw a lot of mortalities, but successes, too. It was well worth the experience for them to help out.”

At the same time, Shedd let the network of California sea lion rescues know that it was ready and willing to take in a young male sea lion if one could not be released again.

Six weeks after his March reintroduction, Laguna was found under a pier in Ventura County, weighing 38 pounds. His flipper tag indicated he’d been rescued before. As the pup recovered at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom’s rescue center, a member of the rehab team called Shedd.

Sea lion manager Kelly Schaaf flew out to evaluate the pup and was impressed. A week before Laguna was ready for transport, animal care specialist Mina Minn went to the rescue center to observe his behavior and get a feel for his personality before accompanying him to Chicago.

“He was wonderful from the get-go,” Lisa says.

Laguna being fedWhile Laguna was up to a healthy 62 pounds when he came to Shedd, he ate like he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from—not surprising for an animal that nearly starved to death twice.

“He’s calmed down,” says Lisa. “It was a combination of him getting the right balance of food throughout the day and understanding the ‘game.’ He gets fed when we play with him.” That includes tossing him “feeder balls,” hollow toys with assorted holes in them that can be stuffed with fish.

On the regular sea lion diet of herring, capelin and squid, Laguna now weighs 73 pounds—just right for his age.

“You can tell he’s still a young kid by the way he plays with toys,” Lisa says. “A lot of the adult sea lions have no interest in toys. But Laguna will take new objects, throw them in the air and dive after them—whether they have fish in them or not.”

He also loves to loll in a spray of water. Lisa says, “We turn on a hose and he lies under it, with his mouth open. He’s very, very playful.”

Laguna’s health doesn’t appear to have been affected by his harrowing start in life. Researchers have ruled out infectious disease or marine biotoxins as the cause of the UME. Now they are reviewing data on sea lion food sources and studying the condition of this year’s sea lion mothers and pups.

Whatever was the cause of Laguna’s failure to thrive almost a year ago, today he’s energetic and robust. “He’s very engaging, and he’s interested in everything we do,” Lisa says. “We’re really happy that we could give Laguna a home at Shedd.”

Please support Shedd’s rescue and rehabilitation work by giving to the annual fund. You’ll help us help wild animals in urgent need—working for full recovery when possible and providing a permanent home when needed. Thank you.

Karen Furnweger, web editor

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