Zoo's new Sea Lion Sound continues trend of conservation, sustainability
California sea lions are friendly, curious animals. Fun for audiences to observe, they are in zoos across the country despite their “common” status in the wild.
The St. Louis Zoo’s new Sea Lion Sound exhibit will open to the public June 30, replacing a sea lion pool and arena that housed various animal shows for 57 years. The exhibit includes the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Family Sea Lion Landing and the Lichtenstein Sea Lion Arena, which will house twice-daily sea lion shows.
The year-round pool at Sea Lion Landing holds 188,000 gallons of salt water while the show pool holds 39,000 gallons. The Zoo has five sea lions experienced in performing, and they will all return for the 2012 season.
Eleven sea lions in total will inhabit Sea Lion Sound along with one harbor seal — down from the originally planned four harbor seals after three died on their way to the Zoo earlier this month.
The four seals were en route to St. Louis from Storybook Gardens, a theme park in London, Ontario, when three fell ill. Two died June 8, and the third — a 19-year-old named Cri Cri — was stabilized and taken to the Indianapolis Zoo for treatment. Cri Cri died June 13 in Indianapolis.
A veterinary pathologist at the St. Louis Zoo performed necropsies on the first two harbor seals, and the College of Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University will do Cri Cri’s necropsy. Scientists won’t know the causes of death until testing is complete in a few weeks.
No decision has been made so far about whether the Zoo will acquire more seals, but the exhibit will open as planned.
A ‘comfortable environment’
One of the most prominent features of Sea Lion Sound is its 135-foot-long underwater viewing tunnel — the first of its kind in North America — where visitors can see animals swimming around them. The main outdoor pool also offers an underwater window at its deep end, allowing visitors close access to the animals.
“At Sea Lion Sound, visitors will see our sea lions close up. They will be able to interact directly with these magnificent marine mammals and learn from that contact. We believe this experience will build a new understanding of these highly adaptable, social creatures and the need for their conservation,” St. Louis Zoo president and CEO Jeffrey Bonner said in a press release.
Designed to resemble the animals’ natural habitat on the Pacific northwest coast, Sea Lion Landing includes rocky outcroppings and a beach area for sunbathing, training and feeding.
“A key improvement for the sea lions is a change from freshwater to saltwater pools — an aquatic environment that more closely replicates their natural habitat,” Steve Bircher, curator of mammals at the St. Louis Zoo, said in an email.
Another addition is the Sea Lion Care Center — a separate facility dedicated to providing care and management for the marine mammals.
Bircher added that the Care Center “houses a state-of-the-art life support system that re-circulates and treats the exhibit water to maintain a healthy, comfortable environment for the animals and excellent water clarity for guests’ viewing.”
Keeping the exhibit’s water comfortable for the animals is an important task at any zoo. The Tulsa Zoo, which opened its new Sea Lion Cove in March, also has a separate facility to regulate water and pH balance, according to Sarah Dyer, the community relations coordinator at Tulsa Zoo Management, Inc.
Sustainability, conservation and entertainment
Zoos are also continuing to focus on making their exhibits greener, or more sustainable. St. Louis’ closed-loop life support system will save 11 million gallons of water compared to the previous exhibit, according to Bircher. Other green features include permeable pavement, moats that double as bio-filtration swales, and the use of recycled materials in construction.
This trend also can be seen in zoos such as the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington. It is in the process of opening its new seals and sea lions exhibit, which will be LEED certified, saving water and energy.
While sea lions are not currently endangered in the wild, they attract large crowds of visitors. In a recent New York Times article, Bonner talked about the struggles of balancing the public’s desires and conservation efforts. Another scientist, Steven L. Monfort, the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute at the National Zoo, told the Times he believes that zoos should focus less on animals like sea lions and more on animals in need.
However, zoos say that they use the marine mammals as a means to educate visitors about larger issues of ocean conservation and sustainability.
At the Tulsa Zoo, Dyer said that the sea lion keeper's chats offer an opportunity for visitors to learn about pollution and fishing practices.
“We like to talk to visitors about overfishing and pollution. That’s really important because it affects sea lions’ homes. Our sea lions come from the wild, from rocky areas … and pollution really hurts those places,” she said.
The Indianapolis Zoo, where Cri Cri was taken, calls itself a “green zoo” and has multiple exhibits focused on conservation and sustainability. In particular, the Oceans exhibit connected to its sea lions raises issues about the relationship between animals, humans and global warming.
“Whether endangered or not, sea lions represent their wild cousins and the important issues of ocean conservation,” Judith Gagen, conservation communications specialist at the Indianapolis Zoo, said. “Our mission is conservation.”
St. Louis’ Sea Lion Sound will also work to promote sustainable seafood and ocean conservation, according to a release. Visitors can pick up a Midwest Seafood Watch Pocket Guide at the Zoo for a list of recommended, and discouraged, seafood choices. A card can also be downloaded at www.stlzoo.org.
“As we plan for the Zoo’s future, we have made a promise to always care deeply for animals and the natural world, to remain accessible to all our visitors, to be a leader in wildlife conservation, and to steward our resources carefully,” Bonner said.