Sea Lion Sound, with a transparent walk-through tunnel and an outdoor environment modeled after the rocky Pacific Northwest coastline, will be a terrific addition for St. Louis Zoo visitors when it opens June 30.
The 35-foot-long acrylic tunnel, which will allow the 11 resident California sea lions, plus four harbor seals to swim over and around visitors, is the first in a North American zoo.
“You will be surrounded by sea lions, and it’s an absolutely spectacular experience,” said Steve Bircher, the zoo’s curator of carnivores. “We believe it’s the only one like it in the U.S. for sea lions, so we’re very proud of it. When I go in there, I have a hard time leaving it, because we do have animals that are living on the exhibit side now – we’ve been letting them acclimate for a week or so.”
Planning for the 1.5 acre, $18 million habitat and arena started three years ago, Bircher said, and construction began just over 1 ½ years ago.
"We are very excited,” Bircher said recently. “We are on schedule. We’re doing some of the final touches, but we’re 99.9 percent of the way there.”
The facility has three components – the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Family Sea Lion Landing, the Lichtenstein Sea Lion Arena, and the Sea Lion Care Center – all with behind-the-scenes components.
“This is a very complex exhibit,” Bircher said. “There’s a life support underneath the exhibit which holds all of our filtration equipment, the ozonation equipment, and then there are a couple of other buildings that you don’t see from the outside – one has a tiller, one has aeration towers that are part of the ozonation system.”
The zoo staff went to great lengths to make the exhibit as realistic as possible.
“This exhibit is themed after the Pacific Northwest coast,” Bircher said. “So we wanted to bring in a company that could recreate what you see if you drive on the coastline. There was a team of us who went out a year ago to take photos of the coastline just before they started the natural rock work part of this. We brought those back and asked the rock work company to recreate what we photographed during that trip. We think they’ve done a really good job with that.”
Sea Lion Landing has a 190,000 gallon saltwater pool, with a shallow beach area at one end where the denizens gather for sun bathing, feeding and training sessions. The deeper end features a 23-foot glass viewing window to watch the sea lions dive, frolic and twirl and interact underwater.
The Sea Lion Care Center includes holding enclosures, a veterinary medical pool and a kitchen, plus office space. The Sea Lion Arena, on the south side of the exhibit, will host about 120 people, with a large shade over it.
“Our sea lion show has always been one of our most popular attractions here, since 1970,” Bircher said. “So we’ve combined that venue with the natural exhibit, so we have it all in one area now, at the center of the zoo, where the old sea lion basin used to be.”
Feedings will be open to the public on the exhibit side, with shows in the arena. Six sea lions have spent about a month in the new habitat, acclimating and training for the shows. There are five veterans from previous seasons and one newbie, a relative youngster from the Pittsburgh Zoo that will be worked in gradually. Another five California sea lions – three adults and two pups – arrived about six weeks ago from the San Antonio Zoo and will stay on the exhibit side.
Training sea lions involves reinforcement, repetition and patience.
“They’re a lot like humans – there’s a bell curve,” Bircher said. “You have animals that are at the low end of the bell curve, and then you have mediocre, and then you have the more intelligent animals. What we try to do is identify behaviors. We can’t make sea lions do things that they don’t want to do. So we try to identify certain behaviors in certain animals, and then we try and enhance those behaviors.
“So, for instance, if we have an animal that really enjoys balancing a ball on his nose, we will continue to reward that behavior and enhance that behavior. One of the males – Robbie – likes to throw a Frisbee. He puts it in his mouth and he tosses the Frisbee. Not all of our sea lions are able to do that.”
Some prefer to go down the slide, while other do the high dive or leap out of the water.
“So once you identify the behaviors in those individuals, then we just continue to reward and enhance those behaviors,” he said.
The rewards are usually fish or praise, and the work environment is very laid back.
“The door is open, and any time the sea lions want to leave the stage, they’re welcome to do that,” Bircher said. “We can’t force an animal that weighs more than we do to stay on the stage if they want to go in the back area, or they want to go in the pool when we want them up on the stage, and that all adds to the show. The trainers will just explain what’s going on, why we think they’re doing it, and the audience really enjoys that. Sometimes I think they actually prefer it more when the animals don’t do exactly what we ask them to do.”
Being part of the show is stimulating and interesting for the sea lions.
“We believe they are doing it because they enjoy doing it,” he said. “It’s good physical activity for them.”
Behind the scenes, the sea lions get to play with specially designed toys and have lots of fun with “fishcicles,” fish frozen in ice.
“They get a lot of enrichment, just like we provide for all of our animals here at the zoo,” Bircher said.
Bircher has been with the St. Louis Zoo over 30 years and has appreciated the change in philosophy from the old days when many animals were kept in cages or small enclosures. The St. Louis Zoo is 100 years old, and several of the buildings on “Historic Hill,” including the Bird House, Herpetarium and Primate House, were built in the late 1920s to early 1930s.
“At that time the philosophy in zoos was to display this large diversity of animal life, but they didn’t care as much about propagation and conservation as we do today,” he said. “So when those buildings were originally constructed, they had a large number of small exhibits with one or two animals per exhibit.”
In the last 30 or 40 years, American Zoo Association members have shifted have removed the small enclosures from historic buildings and replaced them with “fewer, larger, more naturalistic” displays, Bircher said. Since 90 percent of all the animals in the St. Louis Zoo are bred at the zoo, this is essential for maintaining a healthy, viable population.
“We’re keeping animals now in normal, biological, social settings, which has been more conducive to propagation,” he said. “And it helps us to fulfill our mission, which now includes research, education – certainly recreation is a very important part of that – and now conservation and propagation.”
Beginning June 30, sea lion shows will be at 11 a.m., 1:30 and 3 p.m. daily in summer with an additional show at 5 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. From Sept. 4 through Oct. 31, the shows will be on weekends only. Timed tickets are $4 per person at the ticket booth and Welcome Desks on day of show. Children under 2 are free. Zoo members may use their Anywhere passes for tickets.
There will also be three daily sea lion feedings and keeper chats, during the season and weather permitting, at Sea Lion Landing at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. There are no fees for animal viewing areas and public feedings.