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So much to sea…We’re not lion

Commonly known for their lion-like bark and playful behavior, these intelligent mammals are hard to miss. Sea lions are bigger animals—with males weighing an average of 600 pounds—spend their time both on land and in the water and can live up to thirty years in the wild and even longer in zoos. 

There are six different species of sea lions alive today; the most familiar, and the ones who call the Seneca Park Zoo their home, are California sea lions. Assistant curator of carnivores Kellee Wolowitz and Zoologist Sue Rea help train and care for the five sea lions living here in Rochester. 

“We have three girls and two boys. Bob is 370 pounds, and he’s six years old,” Wolowitz says. His mother is Lily, and she’s 220 pounds. Lily was found injured in California, and after she was nursed back to health, it was determined she couldn’t be released into the wild, so she came to us at about the age of two and is estimated to be fourteen now. Mary Lou came to us from SeaWorld Orlando, and she is 199 pounds and seven years old, and Daley came with her—she’s also seven and is 206 pounds. Then our other male is Gunnison, Gunni for short, and he is eight years old and 279 pounds.” 

Sea lions live in large groups usually consisting of one male and a bunch of females, but their personalities differ. Some are more active than others and the amount of time they spend on land or in water varies based on the time of year, such as whether it’s breeding season or not.

“They have big front flippers for walking on land, so they’re able to climb rocks and move around quickly, and they are also very buoyant, can hold their breath for about ten minutes, and can swim up to twenty-five miles per hour. Their nostrils are actually closed so they have to think about opening them and taking a breath,” Wolowitz says. Rea continues, “They sleep on land at night, sometimes they’ll nap in the water, but I’d say most of the time during the day they’re in the water swimming.” 

Sea lions also have fur. When they’re wet it’s like slickeddown hair, but when they’re dry it’s fuzzy and oily. They shed their hair once a year and get a new shiny coat. 

The sea lion habitat at the zoo mimics what their environment would be like in the wild. They have rocky ledges to sit on, and they get a lot of enrichment during the day working for their food. Fish will be hidden in balls and different kinds of toys, so the sea lions have to figure out how to get to it as if they were hunting. Something they get at the zoo that they wouldn’t get in the wild, however, is training. 

“They’re very smart. It’s similar to if you were training a dog; we use a lot of the same techniques,” Wolowitz says. Rea continues, “We use positive reinforcement training, so they’re reinforced for doing something right which increases the likelihood of them doing it again. Some of them are a lot easier to train than others—their personalities are all very different—and some behaviors are easier to train than others. So it really depends, but they can learn something new in a day, or it might take months to learn a hard behavior.” 

However, while it may seem like it, sea lions are not trained for the purpose of doing tricks.

“There’s a reason that we train them, and most of the reasons are for veterinary care,” Rea says. “We’ll train them to open their mouth so we can get a good look at their teeth and the inside of their mouth. They’ll lift their flippers so we can make sure they don’t have any cuts or scrapes; they’ll roll over so we can get a good look at their belly. You want to be able to see the whole animal every day, the underside and everything so that you can make sure that they’re healthy. They’re trained to get eyedrops. They’re trained to get injections, so if we need to give them a vaccine or an injection of any kind they’ll tolerate that just fine. It’s hard if you have a sick animal that you can’t get your hands on, so we want them to be trained to let us touch them all over and trust us.”

The sea lions reward through training is fish. Males get eighteen pounds and females get ten or eleven pounds per day, and it’s a mixture of capelin, herring, and mackerel. They all have different levels of fat and nutrients—capelin has more water in it and herring and mackerel are fattier. However, fish being a sea lion’s primary food source causes some conflict in the ocean.

“Sea lions are in trouble because of pollution, global warming, the water is getting warmer, so the fish are going further away which makes it harder for sea lions to get fish,” Wolowitz says. “There’s also a lot of conflict between sea lions and fishermen because they’re opportunistic— they’ll see all the fish and want to get them, but they can get hurt. If you ever see them lying on a beach in California, don’t approach them, even though they look cute, they’re dangerous. Interacting, touching them, and feeding them encourages them to come close to humans, but then the sea lions are being euthanized for injuring humans or coming to close to the population.” 

If you’re interested in helping keep sea lions safe there are apps available to check which fish are sustainably caught so you’re not competing with sea lions and other marine mammals. Participating in beach cleanups is another way to help—even at the lake, all water leads to the ocean.

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