Shedd helps California effort to save sea lions

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CHICAGO -- Sea lions have been making headlines lately for some pretty bizarre behavior. Earlier this month, a sea lion pup wandered into a California fish market and last month, shoppers snapped pictures of a larger sea lion who wandered into seaside store. Neither seemed fazed by the proximity of humans.

Kurt Heizmann works with the sea lions at the Shedd Aquarium and is fresh off a trip to southern California where he was trying to save the struggling sea lion population in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

“Their first instinct should be to flight, go back to the water and a lot of times these animals are in such poor shape they don’t want to move,” Kurt says.

Kurt spent two and a half weeks at Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, or CIMWI, as they call it, an organization seeing an unprecedented number of stranded sea lions.

“What scientists believe is that because of El Nino, weather patterns and the warmer water temperatures (are impacting) the food the sea lions are looking for. It’s further out off the coast so it’s not as prevalent for them,” Kurt says.

“When they come in, they’re very sick, they’re emaciated. A typical animal of this age is usually between 40-50 pounds. These animals coming in are between 20- 25 pounds so they’re almost half what their body weight should be.”

Kurt’s first job each day was fish prep. He would try to get the very sick to eat and help those already on their way to gain weight. CIMWI workers are constantly rescuing and rehabbing and hopefully releasing animals.

Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. Both rescues Kurt took part in did not survive.

“A lot of times animals that are found in need of rescue are in such poor shape they don’t make it much longer at all. Some of them it’s like their last stand which is really sad to see,” he says.

At any given time about 40 sea lions call CIMWI home. Each is marked so experts can track their food and medical treatment without allowing the animals to get too comfortable.

“You have to be hands off with them. When we do go in with them, there is no talking with those animals. (When we feed them) it never comes directly from our hand. It’s always using tongs.”

Kurt took part in the release of four healthy animals during his work at CIMWI. Another eight are nearly ready for release but it is just the beginning.

Last year CIMWI rescued 359 sea lions. In just the first two and a half months this year there have been 172, a roughly 130% increase.

Conservationists get up to 50 stranding reports a day.

Back in Chicago, Kurt can still marvel at CIMWI’s work. The youngest of Shedd’s four sea lions, Laguna, came from a facility in 2013 after re-stranding in Southern California.Kurt plans to boost the health of CIMWI’s sea lions again an another trip next year.
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