April 21, 2012
A less charismatic animal would have been euthanized.
But Big Guy – a 700-pound, 5-foot-tall sea lion stricken by blindness who was rescued and cared for at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro – so charmed the staff that they resolved to find him a home.
It took two years – the longest stay in the history of the center – but at last, Big Guy has found his new digs, at Utah’s Hogle Zoo. He’ll be leaving next week, either by semi or jet airplane.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Jill Romano, spokeswoman for the center, which is the only federally authorized hospital for injured and sick marine mammals in Los Angeles County. “We’re happy he got a home – that’s what we all wanted. But at the same time we’re kind of sad to see him go. I’ve never seen a community become so attached to an animal as they have been to him.”
As for how the California bull sea lion lost his vision, it’s anybody’s guess. He was discovered on a Santa Monica beach in February 2010 by a local animal rescuer.
Judging by the facial gashes, scrapes and bruises, staff members at the center surmise that a dramatic event was to blame: maybe a scuffle with a rivaling beast, maybe a bludgeoning from a passing boat, maybe an epic tangle with a fishing net.
Whatever the case, the creature didn’t allow the trauma to change his gentle demeanor, which, in conjunction with his girth, gave rise to the affectionate nickname.
“He’s a big, giant sweetheart,” Romano said. “He’s got a great temperament. Such a calm nature about him.”
It’s safe to say Big Guy will experience an upgrade to his standard of living. At the center, he shared a 6-foot-deep, 16,000-gallon pool with as many as five other sea lions – all of them female.
The portly pinniped’s watery exhibit in Utah will be twice the depth and 11 times the volume, featuring an underwater viewing area for visitors. It’ll also be more exotic.
Called Rocky Shores, the brand new state-of-the-art facility is part of a mixed species exhibit, featuring two other sea lions and three harbor seals. In separate enclosures there will be a polar bear, three grizzly bears, river otters and bald eagles.
There, Big Guy will get to know Rocky Shores staff member James Weinpress, who has long worked with marine animals with disabilities.
“I worked with a blind sea lion and a mentally disabled dolphin,” he said in a statement. “Once you figure out how the animals learn, it opens the doors and shows how much these animals can do – they’re capable of anything.”
Because sea lions spend a lot of time navigating rocky beaches and treacherous waters, they cannot survive in the wild without their eyesight.
Getting him to the center in San Pedro was a Herculean task. The rescuer, Peter Wallerstein, worked with several lifeguards to coax the injured sea lion into a net. They then lifted him with a crane onto a boat and into Wallerstein’s truck to be delivered to the Marine Mammal Care Center.
Two years ago, the center’s veterinarian, Dr. Lauren Palmer, had to decide whether to euthanize him. She hesitated, she said, because he was so gentle.
“He’s a really magnificent creature,” she said.
Transporting him to Utah promises to be even more of a feat. Regardless of whether he travels by big rig or jet, Big Guy will be contained in a 1,000-pound crate. Traveling with him will be a female pup who is one-tenth his weight. She, too, has a vision problem that precludes release into the wild, and so she will also be taking up residence in Utah.
Once Big Guy and his new roommate arrive at the aquarium, they will each be quarantined for 30 days before they are integrated into their new environment.
Back in San Pedro, despite being surrounded by the females, Big Guy never mated.
“He didn’t really show much interest,” Palmer mused. “However, we had another adult sea lion that did.”
She acknowledged that the clock was ticking for Big Guy: Animals that do not get placed in a timely fashion are often euthanized.
“That question was hanging out there, and fortunately we didn’t have to address that,” Palmer said. “No one wanted to go there.”
Unlike Big Guy, the female pup traveling with him is nameless. In fact, the staff at the center doesn’t normally name their animals. But Big Guy is exceptional.
“Big Guy just kind of stuck,” Palmer said. “It wasn’t very creative, but it’s descriptive.”
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