A life-threatening situation with a happy ending is also a sobering reminder of how critically important it is to keep marine habitats clean and free of pollution. On May 22, Memorial Day, a young visitor to the Aquarium tossed a small object into the main sea otter pool, where northern fur seals Flaherty and Leu were spending the day.
The child’s mother notified staff and let them know that the object was a “stress ball,” made of stretchy cloth and scented with dried lavender. As soon as the ball entered the pool, the fur seals began tossing it around—similar to the way they sometimes play with their food. Although Aquarium staff entered the exhibit mere moments after being alerted to the presence of the foreign object, no ball was found.
Flaherty and Leu were shifted back to the fur seal exhibit and a quickly assembled Aquarium dive team searched the sea otter pool for the ball, but to no avail. On Tuesday morning, Dr. Lindsay Helvey and the staff of Northwest Equine Veterinary Associates, and our staff veterinarian, Dr. Lesanna Lahner, took some digital radiographs which confirmed that Leu had ingested the ball. Dr. Lahner then did some research on similar balls sold nearby and discovered that they are primarily filled with whole flax seeds.
In the warm liquid environment of Leu's stomach, the ball expanded and the contents became sticky with a gelatinous coating. The ball was not only too big to pass from Leu’s stomach into his intestines, but also too big for him to regurgitate. It was stuck.
By midday, Leu was clearly in distress and becoming less and less responsive. Dr. Lahner organized and led an all-star team of specialists—including Dr. Betsy Lutmerding of the Navy's Marine Mammal Foundation; Dr. Justin Rosenberg, veterinary intern at the Vancouver Aquarium; Dr. Kendra Bauer, veterinary intern from Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium; veterinary technician Teresa Casson of the Animal Surgical Clinic of Seattle; and human gastroenterologist, Dr. Darik Taniguchi and his wife Jo Taniguchi, who is a nurse, both of Seattle Gastroenterology Associates—to come to Leu’s aid. The team worked into the wee hours of the night during a four-hour medical procedure, carefully cutting open the ball and removing enough flax seeds to make it possible for the ball to be safely pulled out through Leu’s mouth.
The procedure went well and Leu is now recuperating nicely. He’ll remain under veterinary care and off exhibit for the next several days as Aquarium staff continue to monitor his condition. Comments Curator of Birds and Mammals Traci Belting, “We tell many stories to our guests about the perils of foreign object ingestion when wild animals consume human-generated trash. Unfortunately animals in the wild don't have an expert team to save their lives the way fur seal Leu did.”