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 and dwellers 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,” he said.
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.
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.
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. “We wanted to bring in a company that could recreate what you see if you drive on the coastline.
"A team of us went out a year ago to take photos of the coastline just before they started the natural rock work part of this," he said. "We brought those back and asked the rock work company to recreate what we photographed during that trip."
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.
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.
How the sea lions are trained
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.
“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.
“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. The trainers explain what’s going on, why we think they’re doing it, and the audience really enjoys that.”
A little history
“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.”
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.”
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.