Leu, the northern fur seal at Seattle Aquarium


As we mentioned in our post earlier this week, a mature male northern fur seal can weigh over 600 pounds. While Leu and Flaherty aren’t nearly that heavy now (Leu recently weighed in at 207), they’re certainly big enough to make their caretakers thankful that they’ve been trained to voluntarily participate in their own health care.

That’s right! Leu and Flaherty—along with many animal species at the Seattle Aquarium—are trained to voluntarily participate in routine exams, oral hygiene, weight checks and more, just like you voluntarily participate in your own health care by stepping on the scale at the doctor’s office and holding your mouth open when you get your teeth cleaned at the dentist. Check out this video of a recent training session with Leu and Flaherty!



But, just as there are times in human health care when the doctors need to take control—a surgery, for example—the same is true for the animals in our care. Today we’re sharing the story of how a life-threatening situation with a happy ending was also a sobering reminder of how critically important it is to keep marine habitats clean and free of pollution.

On Memorial Day in 2015, 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.

lavender ball

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, Leu and Flaherty 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.

“The boys” were shifted back to the fur seal exhibit and a quickly assembled Aquarium diver team searched the sea otter pool for the ball, but to no avail. On Tuesday morning, digital radiographs were taken, which confirmed that Leu had ingested the ball. Our animal care team then researched similar balls sold nearby and discovered that they’re primarily filled with whole flax seeds.

If you’ve ever mixed flax seeds with yogurt or used them in a recipe, you probably know that they expand when exposed to moisture. Which is exactly what happened—except the expansion took place in the warm, liquid environment of Leu's stomach. The ball expanded and the flax seeds inside became sticky with a gelatinous coating. Now significantly larger, the ball was not only too big to pass from Leu’s stomach into his intestines, but also too big for him to regurgitate.

In short, it was stuck.

By midday, Leu was clearly in distress and becoming less and less responsive. Our animal care team organized and led an all-star team of specialists from the nearby community 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 it to be safely pulled out through Leu’s mouth.

The procedure went well, and Leu quickly made a full recovery. Said Curator of Birds and Mammals Traci Belting in the aftermath, “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.”

All the more reason to stop plastics, trash and pollution from entering our marine environment: to help protect the health and safety of animals in the wild. And, as luck would have it, next week’s theme is dedicated to helping everyone take action—even while sheltering in place!—to preserve the health of Puget Sound and the ocean. Be sure to join us for Earth Action Week, April 20—24! Details to come Monday, right here on our blog.


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