Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Truth About Sea Lions: What The Recent Dodo Article Failed To Mention

I read something that made me really sad.

Oh noes!!! Don't be sad little sea lion!

Has anyone seen the Dodo article, SeaWorld's New Ad Is A Lie, So We Rewrote It To Be Accurate?

You may notice I didn't put a hyperlink to the site.  It's not to be petty, but it's because I don't want to send you to something that makes you sad.

Someone on my Facebook news feed shared this yesterday with a well-intended but misguided comment about it, talking about Sea World anthropomorphizing sea lions and how this new article is going to really Tell The Truth.

The problem is, that Dodo article is packed with a lot of misleading statements.  This makes me so upset, because that kind of "journalism" completely detours good-hearted people away from actual issues and focuses them on topics that are not actual problems.  It's propaganda and it hurts animals.


Opinions are one thing, but changing facts is another, and I'll hold myself accountable on that point too.  Just because I have an opinion on something doesn't mean I'm an expert.  It does mean the burden of responsibility is on ME to make sure what I say is factually correct and not misleading when I present information to a bunch of people.

But the more I thought about the article, the more I thought about all of the people right now (as I write this, as YOU read this) are caring for hundreds of starving sea lion pups in California.   And there are people who love animals so much and want to do right by them, and they come across this article and think, "Oh my GOD, those poor sea lions who have to live in a zoo!!!!"

The article tells us that Sea World doesn't tell us where their sea lions come from, but then lets us know that they took sea lions from their wild colonies.  Now those sea lions have bred in human care, so their offspring don't know anything about the wild, or how to catch fish.  It also tells us that sea lions have to sleep and move around in their own excrement.

I...don't even know where to start.  This is offensively incorrect on so many levels.

First, let's get this out of the way, sea lions are poop factories.  They don't really care that poop gets on them.  The fact is, any Alliance-accredited facility is about 73895825 times cleaner than any wild sea lion haul out.  Seriously, has this author ever seen a rookery in her life?! I've never seen so many poo-slathered animals as when I've seen sea lions in the wild.  They sleep by the HUNDREDS on top of each other, and poop and pee wherever and on whomever they please.   The smell is overpowering.  But the sea lions sure don't mind!

See those brown puddles all around?  Those are poop and pee puddles, not tide pools.  Some of the sea lions are actually sleeping in these puddles (I know because I took this picture).

Still, in zoos and aquariums with California sea lions, we clean their exhibits at least once a day.  So do they sometimes sleep in their own poop? Yep, some of them do.  Then we clean it up with diluted Dawn soap and spray it down, and the sea lions get nice and clean and do it all over again the next day.  So let's not propagandize the "horrible" living conditions sea lions face in marine parks and zoos.

Here's a closer shot, with our friend the poo puddle in the front left corner.

Second, let's address how "terrible" Sea World and other aquariums are for "taking wild sea lions" from colonies.

Here's what I've noticed about the wild sea lions.  While I will never park myself on the extreme end of any opinion spectrum, I will tell you that the wild is a pretty tough place for our flippered friends.  Please understand I'm not saying that therefore, all sea lions should be removed from the wild.  No.  On the contrary, there are a lot of things humans can do to improve conditions for wild sea lions so they only have to deal with the more natural crappy things they face every day.

Here is a little list of what a sea lion would probably have to deal with if humans all lived in a planet in a distant galaxy instead of being on planet Earth:

If you need me, I'll be on Planet Donut.

1) Predation from great white sharks

2) Predation from orcas

3) Normal selection pressure for young pups (developmental problems, weak
     immune systems, poor genetics, etc.)

4) Accidental injury or death

5) Illness naturally found in the environment and/or heavily populated areas

6) Occasional natural disaster-related problems, directly or indirectly (e.g. food 
    source fluctuation, disease, water temperature, etc)

7) Death by conspecific (rut is a rough time for anyone, and pups can get
    crushed under the weight of a bunch of sea lions piling on top of each other
    like they do)

I know this is sad :(  But the little guy on the left had massive bite marks from other sea lions on his face, which had shredded his jaw muscles.  He is very thin.  All he wanted to do was snuggle up with this big guy, who kept barking at him to get away.  Also, note the poop puddle in the background.  This little dude is doomed, whether from starvation or succumbing to his injuries (not a very clean environment to have a shredded face).  It's a heart-breaking but familiar scene for anyone who sees wild sea lions.  That's nature, guys.

Those are all pretty serious issues to contend with as a wild animal, but that's what it's like living in the wild and plenty make do.  But now we've got to look at the human element, which adds an entirely new set of horrors to the list that are not easy for these animals to adapt to.

Domoic acid toxicity is one of the major causes of Unusual Mortality Events (UMEs) of California sea lions.  Domoic acid is found in certain algae species (think Red Tide) and it is really a nightmare if you're what scientists call a "higher vertebrate"*.  Why?  Well basically, this toxin gets worse and worse the longer it chills in the food web.  That means by the time a "higher" predator like a sea lion eats a fish who's eaten a fish who's eaten some of this toxic algae, it is really, really bad.  Like, destroys your brain bad.  

Sea lion with domoic acid poisoning

Unfortunately, human-related activities are a leading cause of increases in these toxic algae blooms responsible for domoic acid deaths in marine animals.  Warmer water and agricultural/sewage run-off are major contributors in helping Red Tides do their thang (hey, Gill from Finding Nemo was right when he said, "All drains lead to the ocean, kid").

Also, don't let this chick near any sea lions.

Another problem?  And this is what the Dodo article was referring to: the Bonneville Dam sea lions.  For those of you unfamiliar with this situation, the Bonneville Dam is located in the Colombia River near Washington State and Oregon.  Its primary function is generating electricity.  Its primary ecological problem is that it poses a massive traffic jam for sturgeon and salmon who just want to settle down and have 6 trillion kids.  While the dam has what it calls "fish ladders" to allow the fish to pass, it does a pretty awful job at it.

The Bonneville Dam

So what happened?  The fish heap together waiting for their turn through the fish ladders and in the meantime, some really smart "higher vertebrates" realized their good fortune.  Human anglers and sea lions thought their lives were made when they realized what a bountiful, easy feast the dam provided.  And like all animals, they over-exploited their resource.

So what happened?  Oh, the salmon and sturgeon populations fell drastically.  This upset a lot of people for a lot of understandable reasons.  Some less-than-understanding anglers decided to take matters into their own hands and started trying to illegally kill the sea lions, and they were successful in some cases.  In other cases, they maimed these poor animals.  State governments decided to cull the sea lion population.

A big dude having hisself a snack at Cafe Bonneville

Yes, you read that right.  I'm not an ecology expert and realize that there are a lot of factors that come into play, but my emotional side keeps winning when I think about this situation.  Nonetheless, there are a lot of steps taken to prevent killing sea lions:


1) Individually identifying problem animals, which involves a hot brand.  Yes, it hurts the animal.  No, I don't know what other methods are effective and I have nothing to do with this process.  I'm just sharing a fact.  The animals are captured and branded so that government officials can identify "problem" animals.

That gun is loaded with firecrackers to deter sea lions from the dam area

2) Humans attempt to deter the sea lions from the dam by using a variety of methods, which can include underwater explosives.  Again, this is to prevent the sea lions from coming near the fish, so it's not necessarily a cut and dry thing is it?  I mean, we could all have our ideal answer (take down the dam! Find sustainable and low-impact energy sources!).  But how can we spare the lives of California sea lions TODAY or tomorrow?  The answers from California and Oregon are scaring the crap out of the sea lions with underwater explosives.  Facts, people.

That is one big pile of sea lion.

3) Relocate really problematic sea lions....which doesn't seem to work very well.  Because they keep coming back.....

Tanner, a male sea lion at the Shedd aquarium, was rescued from Bonneville Dam (see his branding?)

4) Put out an all-call to zoos and aquariums to take as many Bonneville Dam sea lions into their care, because the next step is killing them.  There is no other option.

This is the crate the sea lions are captured in for branding, removal, rescue, or euthanasia.

5) Euthanize.  Engage in stressful capture, place sea lion in a metal pen, and euthanize them chemically or with a high-powered rifle.

The majority of animals who are slated to be moved to a zoo or slaughtered wind up being euthanized by wildlife management.  Zoos simply do not have the resources to save all of these animals.  And unfortunately, the Bonneville Dam is just one of many places where this kind of thing is happening.  Aquaculture up and down the Pacific coast of North America attracts marine mammals of all kinds since hey, the fish is nice and available in convenient little packets.  Humans trying to protect their livelihood have no qualms about shooting at sea lions, seals, dolphins and porpoises.  I actually saw this firsthand when I was in British Columbia in 2006.  Yeah, it's illegal.  But there really isn't the law enforcement coverage you'd think there'd be.    Marine mammal rescuers have patients routinely come in with life-threatening or fatal gun shot wounds.

Here's another sea lion at the Shedd Aquarium.  This little guy was found as a pup with gunshot wounds that rendered him completely blind.  The Marine Mammal Center nursed him back to health and he ended up going to the incredible Shedd Aquarium.

Recently, you've probably seen a lot of press about the starving sea lion pups and how over the past few years, this problem has gotten significantly worse.  I just heard a story on NPR this morning about it.  One of thing things mentioned by the person they interviewed was that half of their job is looking at these poor, suffering baby sea lions and figuring out who is going to make it and who isn't. You know what that means, right?  Having literally hundreds of pups flood the marine mammal rescue centers (and there's like, a handful of those IF that that are handling the entire Pacific coastline of the U.S.) means you have to decide which little ones are too close to death's door and no amount of TLC or top-notch medical care will bring them back.  My heart breaks thinking about this, for the animals themselves and for the people who have to make that decision and see it every single day.

Tube-feeding adorable little faces

So what's going on with these pups?  The strongest hypothesis has to do with diminished food resources thanks guessed it....human-related nonsense.  Global warming.  Not enough cows are farting to make this big of a difference.  But humans (being the animals they are) over-exploit their resources and pollute the planet, and it causes massive and catastrophic damage to ecosystems everywhere.  In this case, mom sea lions are not able to get enough food to feed themselves and nurse their pups properly, and their babies die a slow and miserable death.

A very, very new pup

This is what California sea lions are dealing with today.  Marine mammal rescue centers are doing their best to make a positive difference in that situation.  That might mean comforting a terminal pup so that his or her last moments are surrounded by someone who cares about them, instead of getting picked apart by scavenging birds and mammals on the beach (the likes of which I've actually seen with my own eyes...a starving sea lion getting eaten alive by vultures.  I will never, ever forget what that looked or sounded like).   It might mean nursing a pup back to health who can be released back into the wild.  It might mean nursing a pup back to health and the U.S. government deeming it unfit for he or she becomes a cherished family member at an accredited zoo or aquarium.  

Facilities all over the country are sending trainers for weeks at a time to help these marine mammal rescue centers with all facets of their care.  The hours are grueling.  What these people are seeing is heartbreaking and the stuff of nightmares in some cases.  Sea World stopped their sea lion shows in order to provide more warm bodies to help their rescue operation handle this insane amount of animals showing up at their doorsteps.  How can anyone, even if you don't like zoos or aquariums, deny that this is a case where humans are trying to do the right thing by the animals?

These guys deserve fact-based care, not big egos trying to prove a point on the internet

So this Dodo article, talking about how awful Sea World is for taking sea lions from the wild (like the Bonneville Dam, or pups who are's not like they just go out and grab a couple of sea lions for the hell of it, for crying out loud), completely ignores the hard work people are doing.  It politicizes a topic so that people get up in arms and post stupid stuff on Facebook.  Meanwhile, I see friends and colleagues of mine work 12 to 18 hour days to save these animals who WOULD DIE otherwise.

Is the author of the Dodo article willing to go spend three weeks of their time watching baby sea lions fight for their life?  If she is suggesting that marine parks stop taking in as many sea lions as they can healthily care for, is she willing to show up at these sea lion culls or rescue centers and hold down each sick sea lion as they are euthanized?  Look into their big, gorgeous and intelligent eyes and take their life away just so she can say, "I really stuck it to Sea World!!!"

No way, no one with a heart wants anything bad to happen to sea lions in the wild or in zoos.

I really hope not.  I really hope she and anyone who believed that article can take a deep breath and say, "You know what, I still don't agree with animals in zoos.  But I can acknowledge this imperfect system of humans ruining the lives of animals.  I will do my part to support efforts to save lives, because these animals deserve to be here as much as any of us, politics be damned."

Furthermore, California sea lions live longer in human care than they do in the wild.  When I say stuff like that, it isn't me trying to convince people who are anti-zoos to suddenly change their mind.  I'm just saying that because it's true.  The wild isn't inherently bad, zoos aren't "better" in terms of broad strokes.  If we focus on the facts and put our worries towards actually saving animals, we can ACTUALLY SAVE ANIMALS.  

Little skinny kid :(

The real activists, the ones who are on the ground helping out, or the ones who are filling in for the trainers, veterinarians, and other people who gave up their time to travel to help, or even the people who sent a couple of bucks to these rescue operations, are the ones who are making a difference in these animals' lives.  California sea lions are as deserving of our attention as any animal!!

The real activists are not people who write articles like the one this blog is responding to.  They are not the people throwing rocks at Sea World employees who are trying to rescue terrified and suffering sea lion pups.  They are not the people who are just busy claiming zoos are better than the wild, or the wild is better than zoos.  They are people putting their money where their mouth is, regardless of their opinion on zoos and aquariums.  They are people who can set aside their egos in order to join forces and passion to bring comfort and a second chance to an animal in need (especially one who is in trouble because of US).

I see you little dude!

Today's blog is inspired by a lot of amazing people whose opinions on animals in human care are totally irrelevant to the topic at hand.  I see you guys fill my newsfeed up.  I see you ON the news.  I see the photos of plump, happy sea lions and know that you all have played a major role in that.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And for those of you who can't travel out there (like me...hey, most of us can't!), here are the websites of the rescue centers who could really use a donation.  If I knew what the heck I was doing with technology, I'd have a fancy donate button or something, but remember who's writing this blog ;)

All of these guys are taking care of pups: I don't care how you pick who to donate to, just pick one (or two, or ALL!):

Make a donation to the Marine Mammal Center (186 sea lion pups)

Make a donation to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (119 sea lion pups)

Make a donation to the California Wildlife Center

Make a donation to the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center

Make a donation to the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center

Make a donation to Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute

Make a donation to Marine Animal Rescue

A really awesome comprehensive fact sheet/FAQ file from NOAA about this year's strandings (seriously, everything you wanted to know)

* Higher vertebrates include you, sea lions, elephants, etc.  Lower vertebrates include axolotls and Justin Bieber.


  1. Don't forget the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro! :)

  2. Thank you Cat! For once again pointing out the sacrifices, truth and heartbreak of rehabbers! The true heroes and activists.

  3. You rock Cat! By the way, Leon was born in Orlando and transferred to San Antonio, where he currently lives. The author of the Dodo piece is an aggregator who lacks any discernible research skills, otherwise she could have figured this out two ways - a one, two maneuver of looking at SeaWorld's webpage, which lists where he lives, and cross referencing that with San Antonio's MMIR, or she could have just called SeaWorld and asked. But she would never do that. She has her agenda. I hope the executives at Discovery Communications, owners of the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, are proud of the work The Dodo is doing, since Discovery is a major investor in the site. Not to mention, this author isn't crowd sourced like other Dodo contributors. She's one of the site's paid staff writers, which means Discovery's helping foot her paycheck for making up propaganda.

  4. Thank you for all this information, I learned a lot.

  5. Excellent. I can't believe the Dodo shows up as "news". It should be called the Doo-doo.

  6. Very informative! I've read every word and the comments. It was surely worth my time to become better educated about what aquariums and zoos are doing to help with the plight of the sea lions. Thank you!

  7. his is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the leisure here! Keep up the excellent work.
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