Gladys Porter Zoo to Adopt Sea Lions
by Kevin Sieff
The Brownsville Herald, April 6, 2009
BROWNSVILLE -- First they were considered culprits, the object of a community's anger and resentment. Then they were sentenced to death by the federal government.
Now, a controversial group of sea lions is coming to Brownsville's Gladys Porter Zoo.
Zoo personnel say the effort is about more than restoring one of the facility's most popular attractions. It's about a nationwide debate over natural resources - and the animals caught in the crossfire.
During the past two decades, increasing numbers of male California sea lions have been feeding on salmon near the Bonneville Dam in Oregon and Washington. Local residents say that the commercial fishing industry - and a centuries-old way of life - hangs in the balance.
In March, the National Marine Fisheries Service authorized Oregon and Washington to kill up to 85 of the worst offenders: male sea lions weighing upward of 1,000 pounds. That's where the Gladys Porter Zoo has stepped in.
The zoo, which retired its last sea lion exhibit two years ago, will adopt four or five animals that would otherwise be killed in the salmon conservation project. Several have already been euthanized in Oregon.
"I wish we could take them all," said Jerry Stones, the zoo's facility director. "We're doing what we can."
The Gladys Porter Zoo is one of only two zoos in the country planning to adopt sea lions. But its location, nearly 2,500 miles from Washington, has complicated the rescue effort.
Last summer, Stones drove a large truck to Tacoma, Wash., ready to relocate five sea lions to Brownsville. But after 40 hours on the road, he was told that the animals had died while being held in traps.
"It was devastating," Stones said. "I felt like a failure."
The crew drove back to Brownsville unsure if or when the zoo would get its sea lions. As if that wasn't problem enough, biologists discovered that many of the animals removed were diseased - making them ineligible for adoption.
But it now appears that Gladys Porter will get the sea lions within the next few weeks. They've started making repairs to the 35,000-gallon tank which will house the sea lions and preparing for another marathon drive to Tacoma. For the zoo, it's a long-term investment - California sea lions live for an average of 17 years.
"I hope and dream that once we get these animals in here, they'll live to a ripe old age," Stones said. "These guys all deserve a chance."
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