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Amber Becerra traveled from Los Angeles to Tacoma for a short 24-hour trip ahead of the holiday weekend. She wanted to see an old friend get his happy ending.
Bjorn the sea lion prepared for his public debut at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, swimming laps in a 30-foot circular pool behind the scenes at the Rocky Shores habitat.
That was until Becerra greeted him. The words “Hi, buddy” immediately prompted Bjorn to swim to the edge of the enclosure and press his nose against the chain-link fence.
“He definitely did recognize my voice,” Becerra said. “It was pretty amazing.”
Becerra wasn’t sure if Bjorn would recognize her — not because it had been nearly two months since she had seen him, but because Bjorn is blind.
Becerra is president and CEO of the Marine Mammal Care Center in southern California. She met Bjorn two years ago, after he was rescued from the beaches of LA. He was in really bad shape. He was critically wounded and starving. After running tests, Becerra’s staff discovered bullet fragments in Bjorn’s skull that likely caused his visual impairment.
“This poor little guy had been shot in the head, obviously was struggling to hunt and survive on his own in the wild so he became emaciated,” Becerra said. “And then also got a shark bite as well before he came into our facility.”
Becerra and her staff knew Bjorn could never survive on his own in the wild. So, while they nursed him back to health, they started searching for Bjorn’s forever home.
That’s a tall order for an adult male sea lion.
“They’re typically aggressive, territorial. And so going into a smaller enclosure in a zoo or an aquarium is not an option because he wouldn’t necessarily get along with the other animals,” Becerra said.
But Bjorn isn’t your typical sea lion. He’s a gentle giant. Becerra says he would cuddle up to the young pups they rescued, almost like a grandpa, even though he’s only about 10 years old.
“We really fought for Bjorn to find a home, and we wouldn’t give up until he found one” Becerra said. “It actually got pretty grim there at one point.”
The search for Bjorn’s permanent home started right before the pandemic, when zoos and aquariums across the country shuttered for months. Becerra worried they would be forced to euthanize Bjorn.
Then, he was rescued — again. This time by Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. He arrived in May after a 22-hour truck ride, weighing in at a healthy 400 pounds.
Malia Somerville is the zoo’s curator of marine mammals. She says Bjorn is the first adult male sea lion to arrive already visually impaired. Some sea lions develop blindness in their old age.
“Sea lions are actually pretty good at adapting to not having sight because they use their whiskers – they’re called vibrissae – they use them to sense the motion of the water,” Somerville said.
To help Bjorn get acquainted with his new home, zookeepers have adapted their training to help him navigate his surroundings. They use tapping noises on a giant wooden board along with verbal cues such as “Follow” to guide Bjorn around the perimeter of the pools and into the water. Sheriden Ploof, assistant curator of marine mammals at Point Defiance, has been building on the training Bjorn started in LA.
Zookeepers are still getting to know him. Eventually, they will use more tactile cues as he adapts to the crowd noises and other sounds around his habitat.
Last week, Bjorn got his first taste of stardom.
An unexpected crowd gathered as Ploof used cues and tapping to guide Bjorn into the main exhibit. Cheers erupted as Bjorn splashed around his new pool. It’s more than double the size of the ones he is used to spending time in.
“Yeah, baby boy, it’s not quite the ocean, but it’s a lot bigger than 20 by 20,” Becerra told Bjorn as he splashed around.
Bjorn’s keepers say he’s patient and easygoing compared to his high-energy Rocky Shores counterparts that he’s still getting to know. Somerville, the curator, says she is looking forward to watching him thrive.
“We don’t know what he was like before his injuries,” Somerville said. “But I definitely think you have to be patient and you have to be trusting that the people around you are helping you, and he seems to have learned that pretty quickly.”
Becerra traveled to Tacoma so she could experience Bjorn’s homecoming in person.
“It was literally life or death for Bjorn, and he made it once again,” she said. “This guy has survived a gunshot to the head, he’s survived a shark bite, he’s survived a pandemic. And here he is he finally gets his second chance at life.”
Becerra said it’s an amazing story and a celebration that we all needed as we emerge from our own really dark time. She says we can all learn something from Bjorn about survival and resilience.