Barney the harbor seal is a beloved icon at the Seattle Aquarium. He was born here in 1985 and, over his 34 years, has touched the hearts of countless visitors, volunteers and staff.
And, while 34 may not seem that old in the world of humans, it’s decidedly elderly for a harbor seal—according to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), of which we’re proud to be an accredited member, the median life expectancy for harbor seals in zoos and aquariums is about 25 years. For humans in the U.S., that number is around 79 years. Which means that, at 34, Barney is roughly the equivalent of a 95-year-old man!
He’s been doing remarkably well, considering his advanced age. Like all the birds and mammals at the Seattle Aquarium, Barney has been trained to collaborate in his own health care. You may have even seen him, along with his “roomies” Hogan and Q, hauling out onto the ledge in the harbor seal exhibit to have his eyes checked or teeth brushed during one of our daily talks.
Barney is now geriatric—and, just as a 95-year-old human requires specialized elder care, he does as well. Geriatric medicine is becoming much more of a focus for animal care specialists at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums (including ours) because, as we learn more and get better at what we do, animals are living longer and longer lives. Providing the very best care and quality of life for them is the number-one priority and also a challenge in the best kind of way.
As Barney has gotten older, and through the use of positive reinforcement training, our animal care staff have been doing regular diagnostics to monitor him for age-related health issues. Numerous issues can arise for harbor seals living in zoos and aquariums as they age: eye disease, cancer, arthritis and dental disease are among the most common. (The situation for harbor seals in the wild is quite different: factors like predation, lack of food, toxins and infectious disease come into play long before the issues that impact older harbor seals living in zoos and aquariums).
Now we’re at the point where our animal care staff have completed all the diagnostics possible with Barney’s collaboration and it’s time for the next step: a deeper look that will require sedation. We’ve brought together a team of marine mammal experts from across the U.S. for the approximately hour-long procedure, which will take place on Sunday, November 17.
Just as it is for humans, recovery time is variable and the first 24 hours are critical. Please check our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for updates after the procedure is complete—and, in the meantime, send Barney a virtual hug or two. Better yet, visit the Aquarium to wish him well in person!