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Blind California Sea Lion Finds Home at Shedd Aquarium

Tanner touches his nose to a visual target.

Cruz, a disabled California Sea Lion pup, has found a new home at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA rescued the pup in July 2012, when he was discovered alone on a beach in Santa Cruz. Blinded in both eyes by gunshot wounds, Cruz recovered at the Marine Mammal Center and now joins three other California Sea Lions at Shedd Aquarium, including a five-year old rescue named Tanner.

“Building trusting relationships is the cornerstone to providing the highest quality care for our animals, particularly in Cruz’s case,” says Ken Ramirez, Shedd Aquarium’s executive vice president of animal care and training. “We literally have to be his eyes, which requires a solid bond between animal and trainer. Since he arrived at the aquarium, Cruz has been comfortably relying on our animal care team to guide him, demonstrating incredible progress.” 

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Cruz trains with a rattle. Photo credits: Brenna Hernandez / Shedd Aquarium

Cruz’s training is adapted to fit his strengths. Usually, caretakers train the animals to follow and touch a visual target, rewarding them with food. This touch-target training helps the animals to cooperate with caretakers as they do health checkups and clean. Cruz successfully follows an auditory cue, a rattle, instead of a visual target.


“Though blind in both eyes, he has a fearless personality and eagerness to learn – two characteristics that indicated we could provide him with a strong quality of life through training,” says Ramirez.

Read more about Cruz and Tanner after the fold.

At five years old, Tanner is an adult weighing 500 pounds.

California Sea Lions are social animals that live in the Eastern North Pacific, in shallow coastal waters and estuaries ranging from British Columbia through Central Mexico. Protected by the Marine Mammals Act, California Sea Lions are nevertheless threatened by habitat loss, accidental bycatch in fishing nets, and commercial fisherman who view them as a nuisance. Ramirez suggests that Cruz's wounds may be the mark of an aggressive fisherman, as humans and Sea Lions both depend on dwindling fish stocks.

In an effort to take pressure off endangered salmon populations in the Bonneville Dam area, Shedd Aquarium works with State of Washington wildlife officials and the National Marine Fisheries Service to relocate wild California Sea Lions. Five-year old Tanner is Shedd Aquarium's third sea lion from the Bonneville Dam area since 2009. As past president of the International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association, Ramirez formed a committee that is exploring alternative methods to this removal/relocation program, involving the use of behavioral training that will allow targeted sea lions to remain in the wild.