Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Gray Seal Pup at Smithsonian's National Zoo

March 26, 2014

This update was written by American Trail keeper Chelsea Grubb.

Where is the seal pup?

Gray Seal Pup floating in water

Our seal pup has an entire holding pool to herself behind-the-scenes of American trail! She is neighbors with her mom (Kara), grandmother (Selkie), and aunt (Kjya). Although they are separated from the pup by a mesh fence, they're able to see, smell, and interact with each other through this safety barrier.

Separating the pup from her mother is a way for us to mimic the social dynamics that happen in the wild. In their natural habitat, a mother gray seal will leave her pup once it is fully weaned—around 3 weeks of age.

What does she eat?

Her diet, which consists of herring and mackerel, has helped her pack on the pounds—all 120 of them! We are working with our Nutrition Department to create a diverse and nutritious menu for her healthy appetite. The adult gray seals typically receive herring, capelin, butterfish, and squid three to four times a day.

Gray Seal Pup eating a fish

What does she like to do for fun?

Our seal pup can spend hours playing with her toys! She seems to enjoy pushing the floating items (pool buoys, puzzle feeders, ring toys) along the surface of the water. She'll sink them with her nose and watch them fly up to the surface of the water! These toys give the pup an opportunity to use her natural abilities and behaviors in new and exciting ways. Zoo fans can get involved by purchasing a toy for our growing pup through the Enrichment Wish List.

Gray Seal Pup pushing a plastic floating ball with her hose in the water

Has the seal pup started training?

Yes! We've started training the pup. She's a fast learner! As you may know, our pup's grandmother, Selkie, is a true Navy Seal and was trained by the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego to insert and remove equipment, use a screwdriver and turn a large wheel valve.

While our pup won't learn those skills per se, she's learning behaviors that will help her day-to-day interactions with her caregivers and family go smoothly.

Gray Seal Pup taking fish from keeper

Has the pup met the Zoo's other seals?

The pup is able to interact with some of the Zoo's seals through a mesh barrier. Our adult seals don't seem to mind the pup, though she is very interested in and curious about them! She watches her elders intently during their training sessions.

Before she has direct contact with the other seals, she must master "shifting"—moving from one enclosed area to another. If a situation arose where we needed to quickly separate the seals into smaller social groups, we could do so by asking them to shift.

When will the pup make her grand debut?

We're letting the animals determine their own timeline. As our pup gets the hang of shifting, we will arrange for the adults to meet the pup, one at a time, without a physical barrier. We watch these introductions closely to ensure it is a positive experience for everyone.

At first, these sessions will be brief. If all goes well, we will gradually increase the time that the pup has with the other seals. Ultimately, we want to ensure that her first exploration of the seal habitat is a safe and fun experience for our entire pod.

How do you know if an introduction is successful?

As animal keepers, we're trained to watch for behavioral indicators of social stress as well as social harmony. All of the adult seals in our exhibit have interacted with a pup at one time or another. Hopefully, these past interactions will work in our favor!

March 1, 2014

Our seal pup is growing by leaps and bounds! She has weaned herself from tube feedings and nursing and is now eating fish. Keepers feed her about 8 pounds of fish each day now.

She also has been separated from her mom Kara, which is normal. In the wild seal pups only spend a few weeks with their mothers. The pup now spends her time in her own holding pool next to her mother’s pool.

Her white lanugo coat has completely disappeared, another sign of her growth. She now has a silvery coat with many black spots, much like the adult seals.

Staff is working on a plan to introduce her to the other seals, but that process will be very gradual.

Pup growing and thriving

After a tough start, our new seal pup appears to be thriving and rapidly gaining weight! She now weighs 60 pounds; that's almost double her birth weight.

Gray seals generally nurse from their mothers for about 15 to 20 days. Our team of keepers and veterinarians continue to supplement nursing with six bottle feedings each day, but they hope in the next few weeks to start feeding her more fish and reduce the amount of formula she eats.

The pup is starting to lose her white coat, known as the lanugo coat. It is a fluffy white coat that gray seals are born with that insulates them until they pack on enough fat to keep them warm in the cold climate they live in. They molt their coats after roughly two weeks, around the time they start to wean. Then their permanent coloring starts showing.

First Pup Born at the Zoo in 23 Years

Keepers Hand Feeding Gray Seal Pup at Smithsonian's National Zoo

Animal keepers at the National Zoo have been hand feeding a female gray seal pup, born January 21, 2014, at 10:21 p.m., in the holding area of the seal exhibit on American Trail. Zoo keepers, veterinarians and nutritionists have been closely monitoring the pup and her mother, Kara. Within 48 hours of her birth, the animal care team began preparations to hand feed the pup as she was not gaining weight while nursing from her mother. Although Kara has successfully given birth and raised one pup before, Kara is not lactating enough to support the current pup without supplemental feedings from keepers and veterinarians.

“Our animal care team is always prepared to hand rear or hand feed an animal if they need to,” said Ed Bronikowski, senior curator at the Zoo. “In the first days of this pup’s life we did not see her gain as much weight as we would have expected. It is still a tenuous time, but the pup’s weight is now heading in the right direction. We celebrate every pound that she gains.”

Zoo keepers, veterinarians and nutritionists immediately collaborated on a plan to supplement the pup’s nutritional needs. Kara received a dose of the hormone oxytocin Jan. 22 in an attempt to stimulate lactation, but even after the dose the seal team could not be certain she was producing enough milk for the pup. By the early afternoon of Jan. 25, keepers and veterinarians mobilized and began tube feeding the pup. She is now tube fed six times each day with a special formula that mimics her mother’s milk. The rich formula is made of a milk replacer, fish oil, water and vitamin E. Yesterday, Jan. 30, keepers were able to hand feed the pup a small capelin fish in addition to the tube feedings.

The pup now weighs 44 pounds, which is up from her birth weight of approximately 35 pounds. In the wild, gray seals generally nurse from their mothers for about 15 to 21 days and gain a significant amount of weight during that time. The mortality rate for gray seal pups that have not been weaned in the wild varies widely between 5 and 20 percent; it can sometimes be as high as 30 percent.

Although she may not be fully lactating, Kara is nursing her pup and is an attentive mother. Between tube feedings, which only take about 10 minutes, Kara and her pup swim in the holding pool and nap on the beach. The pup will join the Zoo’s four adult gray seals and two harbor seals on exhibit in the spring. 

The Zoo received a recommendation to breed Kara with the Zoo’s resident male gray seal Gunther. Kara is the oldest gray seal to give birth in a Zoo. The last pup born at the National Zoo was Kjya in 1990. Kjya, who also lives on American Trail, is Kara’s sister. Kara was born at the Zoo in 1983. Both seals are offspring of the Zoo’s elderly female gray seal Selkie.

Although once endangered, gray seals are now listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In the wild, gray seals range from North America to the Baltic Sea. 

To follow the Zoo’s progress in caring for the pup, check for news on the Zoo’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.