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Sea Lion Dies at Smithsonian’s National Zoo

  • California Sea Lion Pup
    Sea lion Catalina at the American Trail exhibit.

American Trail keepers at Smithsonian’s National Zoo are mourning the loss of a 3-year-old female California sea lion named Catalina, who died Aug. 20. Tuesday morning, keepers found her deceased as they were conducting routine wellness checks. They alerted Zoo veterinarians, who confirmed her death. Zoo pathologists performed a necropsy (animal autopsy) on Catalina, which revealed both of her lungs had collapsed, as well as fluid and an apparent bacterial infection in her chest cavity. In the days prior, Catalina had shown some inappetence—a normal occurrence this time of year when sea lions are molting—but no other signs of illness. A full pathology report will provide more information in the coming weeks. The median life expectancy for California sea lions in the wild is 15 to 20 years; in human care, they can live upwards of 25 to 30 years.

Catalina was born at the Zoo June 26, 2016, to mother Calli and father Jetty. The Zoo received a recommendation to breed Calli and Jetty from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan. Keepers fondly remember Catalina as an inquisitive and playful sea lion who could hold her own among the colony. She seemed to enjoy being in the middle of everything, and often climbed on top of the adults when they were sunbathing. One of her favorite enrichment activities was chasing the jet spray of water coming out of the hose and trying to catch a few water droplets in her mouth.

Visitors can view two female sea lions—Summer and Sidney—at American Trail. Calli and her 8-week-old pup are currently behind the scenes while the pair bonds and the pup develops the swimming skills it needs to safely navigate the large pool in its habitat.

Several weeks ago, animal care staff began “howdy” introductions in which Summer, Sidney and Catalina were able to see, smell and interact with mom and pup face-to-face. Overall, Summer and Sidney’s interactions with the pup have been positive. Keepers anticipate that the pup will makes its debut at the American Trail exhibit in the next few weeks. The Zoo will continue to provide updates on the pup through FacebookTwitter and Instagram. 

Native to the West Coast of North America, California sea lions range from Baja, Mexico, to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Though they were once hunted for their skin, the International Union for Conservation of Nature now classifies them as a species of least concern.

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