11-month-old pup travels 1,400 miles from California to her new home at OKC Zoo

The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden recently welcomed Isla, a California sea lion pup rescued from the Santa Barbara Harbor in Santa Barbara, California, by Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI). The pup who is approximately 11-months-old arrived at the OKC Zoo in mid-May.

Born off the California coast, Isla was found malnourished and emaciated at the Santa Barbara Harbor in November 2018. When concerned citizens called the CIMWI Rescue Hotline, volunteers with the nonprofit organization responded and rescued the pup. The sea lion was transported to CIMWI’s facility to be rehabilitated in hopes of returning her back to the wild. Isla was CIMWI’s 100th marine mammal rescued in 2018. After 90 days of rehabilitation, which included medication, increased fish intake, and daily health checks, she was deemed releasable by the Institute’s veterinarian. Isla, known then as number 100, was released 25 miles offshore, near Santa Cruz Island around other wild sea lions.

Nine days later, Isla returned to the Santa Barbara Harbor and walked into the lobby of the nearby Alma Mar Motel. In the 9 days she was back in the wild, she had lost 9 pounds, which indicated to CIMWI staff that she was unable to forage for herself in the wild. When they brought Isla back to the center, it became clear, after weeks of observation, that Isla was more habituated to humans than she was to the other marine mammals in the institute’s care. From this assessment and Isla’s weight loss when she was back in the open ocean, CIMWI caretakers were certain that Isla would not thrive in the wild, so for her safety and well-being, she was deemed non-releasable.

Once it was decided that Isla could not return to the wild, CIMWI contacted National Marine Fisheries Service (a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA) to locate a zoo or aquarium, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), that could become Isla’s permanent home, and the OKC Zoo was selected. The OKC Zoo then began making preparations to send two team members, Lead Marine Mammal Trainer, Sierra Chappell, and Social Media Coordinator, Sabrina Heise, to California to bring Isla from Santa Barbara to Oklahoma City.

“By becoming a forever home for Isla and providing her with care, veterinary monitoring and an enriching environment, not only are we ensuring her survival, but we are also safeguarding the future of her species,” said Sierra Chappell, lead marine mammal trainer. “Her energetic spirit and inspiring story will resonate with Zoo guests and create a connection that will last a lifetime.”

On Tuesday, May 14, 2019, Isla entered a temperature-controlled crate and was loaded into a van bound for the Los Angeles International Airport. At 6 a.m., she was boarded on a FedEx cargo plane with Chappell nearby to ensure she was comfortable during the flight.

Once Isla arrived in Oklahoma City, she was introduced to her new habitat at the OKC Zoo, where she will stay throughout her 30-day quarantine before she begins interacting with the Zoo’s other six California sea lions. The sea lion habitat, located near the Sea Lion Presentation Stadium, is 10-feet-deep, and Isla is currently viewable to Zoo guests. When she has cleared her quarantine period, Isla will begin meeting her sea lion family.

Considered to be highly intelligent animals, California sea lions’ survival is based on the health of the ocean’s ecosystem. Sea lions are threatened by plastic pollution and are vulnerable to the effects of climate change on ocean currents, which impact their fish prey abundance. They are also victims of bycatch in fisheries. The OKC Zoo participates in AZA’s Species Survival Plan for California sea lions.

Tis the sea-sun to make a splash this spring with a trip to the OKC Zoo to meet Isla! Located at the crossroads of I-44 and I-35, the Oklahoma City Zoo is a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the American Alliance of Museums, Oklahoma City’s Adventure District and an Adventure Road partner. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Regular admission is $11 for adults and $8 for children ages 3-11 and seniors ages 65 and over. Children two and under are admitted free. Stay up-to-date with the Zoo on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and by visiting Our Stories. Zoo fans can support the OKC Zoo by becoming Oklahoma Zoological Society members at ZOOfriends.org or in-person at the Zoo! To learn more about these and other happenings, call (405) 424-3344 or visit okczoo.org.