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Animal Care Experts from Shedd Aquarium Respond to Partner's Call to Rescue, Rehab Wild California Sea Lions in Need

As Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute sees uptick of stranded, starving, sick sea lion pups, it prompts response from experts including Shedd

July 03, 2019

Shedd's vet tech holds IV for malnourished sea lion pup in warming pool

A large influx of sick adult California sea lions and malnourished pups has created a crisis situation, with organizations like Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI) on the front lines. Shedd Aquarium also answered the call, sending staff to support our partners and provide aid to the continued rise of sea lions in need. Animal care experts, veterinarians, vet techs and volunteers are providing medical and rehabilitation care to more than 55 sea lion pups at CIMWI, with the hope of eventually returning the animals back to the wild once they've recovered and regained a healthy weight. It is suspected that these pups are facing challenges getting the nutrition they need on their own after being weaned from their mothers.

"Our work is changing by the hour, and days are filled with several duties from prepping fish and facilitating feedings to performing checkups and administering medicine," said Sage Rosenbrock, veterinary technician at Shedd. "By providing daily care for the rescued, nonreleasable sea lions in our care at the aquarium, we're able to apply this same knowledge and skill set to assist with the rehabilitation of these pups."

"It's all hands-on deck with over 55 pups in our facility, and calls reporting about 10 animals a day along 155 miles of coastline," said Ruth Dover, director at CIMWI. "Animals in the wild face increasing threats - many a result of human activity - and we are thankful for our dedicated volunteers, staff and partners like Shedd Aquarium who are helping us give these pups and adults a second chance at life."

In addition to caring for the admitted animals at CIMWI's facility, Shedd's Animal Response Team has boots on the coastline responding to CIMWI's hotline calls about animals in distress anywhere in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in southern California. Many of the calls are asking for assistance with abandoned sea lion pups that are often malnourished and in distress.

“With a commitment to the welfare of animals - within the aquarium and around the world - we have a longstanding history of responding in times of urgent need.”

Peggy Sloan, chief animal operations officer at Shedd Aquarium

It is unclear why the larger amounts than normal of abandoned sea lion pups are being found, though it is the time of the year when mothers begin the weaning process. Weaning can leave pups weak and makes it difficult to hunt for their own food - and if a pup is weaned prematurely or loses its mother for some reason, the pup will likely be even more vulnerable.

"With a commitment to the welfare of animals - within the aquarium and around the world - we have a longstanding history of responding in times of urgent need," said Peggy Sloan, chief animal operations officer at Shedd. "This is an issue that is close to our hearts, having made a home at Shedd over the years for rescued sea lions like Laguna and Cruz. Our animal care team is always ready to grab their waders and medical kits when called upon to support the incredible work of our partners like CIMWI and make a positive impact on behalf of the aquatic world."

At the same time, additional calls are coming in concerning adult sea lions exhibiting symptoms like confusion, head bobbing and weaving, lethargy and more due to a condition from high quantities of domoic acid released from toxic algae blooms.

Climate change and nutrient pollution in the form of runoff swept into the oceans are the two likely culprits causing the explosive growth of the algal blooms. The blooms produce a neurotoxin that is consumed by filter-feeding fish like anchovies and sardines but does not affect them and instead, compounds up the food chain in a process called biomagnification.

Marine mammals can suffer from domoic acid toxicosis with the severity dependent on the amount of topic prey eaten. There is no cure or treatment, and at high levels, the toxin can be debilitating or even deadly. However, affected sea lions with lower levels of the toxin in their system can sometimes recover within 72 hours, so responders employ a variety of monitoring tactics and sometimes even set up perimeters around the animals to give them space to recuperate.

Jen Levine, Stranding Operations & Animal Care Manager from CIMWI, and Sage Rosenbrock, veterinary technician at Shedd Aquarium, standing in front of CIMWI's response truck.

Anyone interested in making an impact can do so by donating directly to CIMWI or to Shedd Aquarium's Animal Response Team. California sea lions have recovered thanks to sweeping protections like the Endangered Species Act, which has enabled hundreds of species to bounce back from the brink of extinction with support from recovery operations like CIMWI, of which Shedd Aquarium is a proud partner. Continued support and advocacy on behalf of federal and state-level protections for wildlife is critical to the continued survival of species like California sea lions.

VISUALS: High resolution visuals of the rescue work is available for download:

Photo credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez