If I had to choose just one animal at the Oklahoma City Zoo that stands out as giving joy to literally millions of guests through the years, it would be our California sea lion, Moe. Sadly, however, Moe passed away Tuesday, January, 17, due to age-related health conditions. Moe was 30 years old and lived well beyond a sea lion’s median life expectancy of 23 years.
Born in May 1986, he came to the Zoo from the Tulsa Zoo at just nine months old, so I had known Moe since he was a baby. The Zoo was his home and we have enjoyed watching him grow up and become a model ambassador for his species. In the early 90s, he sired three offspring. One male passed away at just a few months old and two females now reside at another zoo.
When Moe was young, he was always a bit of a “chicken” sea lion. Any new experience--no matter how small--would send him into the water with his little tail between his legs! When he was about 14, I returned to the Zoo after being away for 10 years. The Zoo had started a formal training program with our resident sea lions, including Moe. Once Moe learned the basics of training, nothing could stop him. He appeared to love to train and interact with his devoted caretakers. He became the star of the former “Fins and Feathers” show for many years. My young “chicken” had gained new confidence through training and enrichment, and turned into a gentle giant for the rest of his life.
A Fabulous Flipper
Moe spent his life delighting Zoo guests of all ages as they watched him swim, splash, flip and fly through the air during presentations and training procedures. Even with his advanced age, he most recently learned new training behaviors called “dance” and “paint”. Guests were often treated to a “flipper” shake or “fish” kiss. He was a regular contributor to the Zoo’s Art Gone Wild animal art show, voluntarily using a brush to paint original creations for the annual fundraiser for conservation. Moe’s artwork was always a top seller. He was a calm and consistent animal for novice trainers to learn from. At times, he was known to “train the trainers”. He especially enjoyed rub-downs from his trainers and interacting with them. He exhibited a faint, vocal “chirp” during sessions when he appeared engaged or stimulated.
Moe lived more than seven years beyond the age of most sea lions. As he got older, we knew statistically that his days were numbered. He had developed cataracts in both eyes, had some arthritis in his shoulders and hips, and some periodontal disease, for which he took special medication. Fortunately, we were able to celebrate his 30th birthday milestone last May. Several hundred guests attended to wish him a happy birthday and watch him enjoy a frozen enrichment cake.
Moe’s long and happy life has inspired many to care about our beautiful ocean creatures and habitats, and to learn how to help protect them. His life represents why we care about and nurture animals like Moe at the Zoo. Although California sea lions are not an endangered species, stranding issues have developed on the West Coast. Juveniles and pups are found along the shores, and wandering into roads and public areas. Many scientists believe “strandings” are due to warmer ocean temperatures, pushing much-needed prey deeper or farther from feeding areas. Rescue facilities have stepped in with the intent to rescue, rehabilitate and, ultimately, release these animals back into their natural habitat. In some instances, rescued sea lions depend on zoos and aquariums to give them a second chance at life when the ocean proves too challenging to survive. Three of the Zoo’s seven sea lions are rescue animals.
I want to especially acknowledge Moe’s loving marine mammal care team led by Mark Bechtel, Zoological curator, and the vet team led by Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, director of veterinary services. These teams unconditionally cared for Moe, doing all they could to enhance his quality of life through the years. They will miss him tremendously. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers during this time. I know they join me in saying, “Here’s to Moe and the wonderful ways he taught us to care about his species! May we continue to conserve and protect all that we love!”
– Laura Bottaro, zoological curator