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Saying Goodbye to a Big Animal with a Gentle Soul

This story was guest written by Madelynn Hettiger, manager of sea lions and birds of prey at Shedd Aquarium.

Rescuing animals means a commitment to providing excellent welfare for a lifetime. Today, I reflect on the transformational change my team saw and helped shape for Biff, a charismatic California sea lion that called Shedd home for over a decade.

Sea lion biff has wrinkly rolls of flabby skin.

We first learned about Biff the sea lion when he was living out on the west coast. He, among many other California sea lions, had found his way 146 miles from the Pacific Ocean into the Columbia River where they feasted on endangered salmon at the Bonneville Dam.

To protect the salmon from repeat offenders, scientists branded the sea lions with large numbers —Biff’s was C-700— and relocated them. When Biff was found to have returned to the same spot, wildlife management authorities determined he could not be rereleased. Biff met a set of various criteria and was slated to be humanely euthanized.

We knew of this plight, and during our Oceanarium reimagination of 2008–2009, made sure we could work with large adult male California sea lions in a protected manner. Biff received another chance by relocating to Shedd.

When Biff later arrived at Shedd, he weighed over 800 pounds— which is around 200 pounds heavier than a healthy adult male sea lion should be. This was a result of gorging himself on the endangered salmon that was easy prey at the dam.

A joke that I commonly made when introducing him to anyone today, was that he was now a “slim 600 pounds.”

As our initial trust with each other progressed, we got to know him as an individual, and the foundation of a relationship was established. We learned his preferred foods, unique skills and favorite ways to reinforce him through touch— something he truly seemed to enjoy.  

What followed were amazing accomplishments from his care team, exceeding all expectations.

Sea lion Biff looks up at a camera in the rocks, his thick, coarse whiskers on full display.

Recently, however, our team noticed behavior from Biff that indicated that something was “off.”

Over the years, Biff learned how to participate in several husbandry behaviors that allowed him to participate in things like routine blood sampling and doctor check-ups, so when we determined there was a need to conduct a scan to see if we could determine why his behavior was seemingly abnormal, he was able and willing to do so with some assistance of his human caretakers. We headed over to our colleagues at Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo to utilize their specialized CT scan designed for larger animals.

The findings were devastating. The scan revealed a diagnosis of a spinal infection determined untreatable. We could also see the decline of his comfort continuing and knew that the most ethical and best —although hardest— decision we had to make in the best interest of his comfort and care was humane euthanasia. And so, on Wednesday morning this week, we had to say good-bye to our beloved Biff. He was surrounded by the team that loved and cared for him so passionately for 12 years.

Even in his last days with us, we learned more about Biff. His x-ray, for example, revealed that sometime in his past, Biff was the victim of a gunshot. These details help put his journey to Shedd and his time with us into perspective.

Biff had an exceptional life here at Shedd, 12 years longer than he would have had in the wild. The connections he made with so many people —our staff, our guests here and virtually— will leave fond memories and a lasting impression of this big animal with a gentle soul.

We miss you already, Biff.

—Maddy