3:12 PM EDT, July 24, 2013
To look at Laguna now, you wouldn't know what the year-old California sea lion has been through.
In the backstage Sea Lion Support Area of the Shedd Aquarium, the male pup darts through the water. With human visitors standing by, talking about him, he leaves the tank and shimmies up to the edge of his enclosure, apparently curious. A note on a whiteboard says that on July 11 he weighed 59 pounds.
Only his feeding behavior gives away the fact that, not long ago, he weighed less than half that.
"As an animal who nearly starved twice in his life, he is frantic to eat," says Ken Ramirez, the Shedd's executive vice president of animal care and training. "It's probably going to take him months to realize there's always going to be food here."
Laguna is the Shedd's fifth and newest California sea lion. He almost didn't make it here. The animal arrived in late June after twice stranding on California beaches, dangerously underweight, one of hundreds of sea lion pups to do so in the first half of this year.
The government's official term for the mass stranding, Unusual Mortality Event, doesn't do justice to how widespread and extraordinary it was. In the year's first five months, almost 1,500 pups hit Southern California beaches, emaciated and dehydrated, compared with less than 300 in that period in a typical year.
Scientists are still working to determine what happened — the most likely cause is a disruption in the food supply — but the crisis brought a massive rescue effort that included Shedd staffers heading west to help out.
Most of the animals were nursed back to health and released. Laguna was not so fortunate. He was first found in the Laguna Beach area on Jan. 9, weighing just 24 pounds. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center at Laguna Beach — using liquid food first, then fish — brought him up to 61 lbs. before returning him to the ocean March 21.
Six weeks later, he was found on a pier, further north, in Ventura County, Calif., his weight back down to 38 pounds.
While he recovered again, this time at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., the re-stranding meant "the government decided he was a nonreleasable animal and started looking for a home," Ramirez says. "Just because we're in the middle of the country, far from any ocean, doesn't mean we can't participate."
And, indeed, because rescue and rehabilitation is formally in the Shedd's budget, it was able to send two staffers to help with the unusual influx of animals.
"It was really, honestly, one of the most amazingly rewarding experiences I've had in my career working with animals," says Kelly Schaaf, manager of sea lions, birds of prey and dogs, who spent two weeks at the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, Calif.
Although the strandings were starting to become fewer when she arrived in late May, she was still spending 12-hour days helping feed and medicate the animals, which tended to arrive with their skeletons visible through their skin.
"Half a dozen" aquariums sent staff, recalls David Bard, director of the Fort MacArthur facility, and their expertise was invaluable in being able to guide the many volunteers who also helped.
Animal specialists have a well-established protocol for such events. Marine Mammal Stranding Networks will coordinate beach rescue and bring animals to facilities equipped to care for them.
"In a typical year we see 300 to 500 cases for the whole year," Bard says. "We had admitted 400 by the beginning of April. That's just at our facility. We're by no means the largest, but for those three months we were very likely the busiest."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's declaration of an Unusual Mortality Event will help ensure that causes are fully investigated, Bard says, but disease does not seem to be the issue.
"What we're looking at is something environmental, whether fish supply, fish distribution or an oceanographic event," he says.
Says Ramirez, "It becomes a question for biologists and environmentalists."
The Shedd agreed to take Laguna in because it had room for another male sea lion.
The aquarium "made the decision a while back to be a male holding faciliy primarily because males can be (thought) difficult to manage," says Ramirez. "The reality is males are not that difficult to manage if you have no females in the facility. What causes males to be difficult is the tendency to compete for the attention of the females."
Three of the four already there are rescued animals, including last year's arrival, Cruz, blinded after suffering gunshot wounds.
The big difference for Cruz, who spent much of Tuesday in the public display tank across from the beluga whales, is that trainers have outfitted his target — the red ball on the end of a stick that the animals learn to follow — with a rattle. Other animals know color and shape; he knows sound.
Staffers hope that Cruz and Laguna, as similar-sized animals, will prove compatible to live together.
But Laguna isn't ready for the public yet. He is just beginning to learn behaviors that will include following the red ball target; responding to a specific shape and color card — his "name tag," which in his case is a yellow and black diamond shape; and opening his eyes and mouth and lying down on command to allow for medical examination.
Ramirez expects that Laguna could be on view this fall and a fully trained participant in the aquarium's animal shows next year. In the shows, the sea lions demonstrate their training and give staffers an opportunity to talk about rescue and rehab efforts.
For now, though, the pup, who won't reach physical maturity until his teens, has just completed medical quarantine, and the blinders on his pen have been partially removed so he can adjust to the other animals. He gets a diet of herring, capelin and a colored, calorie-free Jell-o that helps with hydration.
Tuesday, he tossed about his last, smelt-like capelin from a morning feeding for many minutes, a typical behavior that can last hours.
There's a chance, says Ramirez, that Laguna's growth may be stunted due to a lack of nutrition at critical moments of his development. But, he says, "other than that he seems to be in reasonably good health."
And, adds Schaaf, there's this: "He's pretty darn cute. He is so full of spunk and he's quite a character. He's going to be just a great addition."
'One World' aquatic show
When: Multiple times daily
Where: Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago. sheddaquarium.org, (312) 939-2438
Tickets: $5 upgrade to Shedd Pass, which costs $28.95 for adults
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