Zookeeper Megan Paluh crouched inside the 700-pound crate, murmuring words of encouragement as Coolio tentatively wriggled his way inside.
With baited breath Northcoast Marine Mammal Center volunteers, armed with backboards, prevented the 500-pound northern elephant seal from escaping back into his enclosure. More volunteers stationed themselves at the crate’s opposite end. A forklift and a U-Haul truck idled in the parking lot Tuesday, waiting to take Coolio on the first leg of his journey from Crescent City to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium in Pennsylvania.
“I tried to block everybody else out,” said Paluh of Pittsburgh Zoo. Along with the zoo’s assistant curator Paul Moylett, she has been building a relationship with Coolio. “Patience is key with pretty much any animal. I can’t get discouraged. It’s a waiting game.”
Once Coolio was inside, volunteers shut the doors and gently wheeled him to the waiting forklift, which hoisted him onto the U-Haul truck. With Paluh and Moylett on board, the truck wended its way from Del Norte County to Oakland International Airport for a 6:30 a.m. rendezvous with a FedEx cargo plane.
The plane would fly Coolio to Pittsburgh via a short stopover in Memphis, said Dwayne Biggs, the zoo’s
During the flight, Coolio would be kept as comfortable as possible in a climate-controlled cabin, Biggs said. Moylett and Paluh would be able to check on him, spray him down with ice cold sea water if necessary and feed him. The plane would also take its ascent and descent slower than normal, he said.
Coolio is scheduled to arrive in Pennsylvania at about 6:30 p.m., Biggs said.
“There hasn’t been a male elephant seal on public display in quite a few years,” he said. “This is definitely unique.”
Coolio will trade in his small enclosure and 200-gallon pool at the mammal center’s hospital for a 276,000-gallon pool and a climate-controlled enclosure at the Pittsburgh Zoo’s Water’s Edge exhibit. He will have polar bears and Alaskan sea otters for neighbors.
But the road to stardom hasn’t been easy for the elephant seal, who cannot be released back into the wild because he’s blind in both eyes, said Dr. Dennis Wood, the center’s founder and director. Coolio weighed a paltry 130 pounds, had wounds to his head and damage to his eyes when volunteers found him on Pebble Beach in early November.
Wood said he and the center’s volunteers had hoped to release the seal back into the wild once his wounds and nutrition issues were healed. But when it was apparent that Coolio couldn’t see the fish his caregivers tried to feed him, the center had to either find an institution that could handle a large pinniped or euthanize him.
“Some guys can be completely blind and survive,” Wood said, adding that he knows of another blind elephant seal locally who is “fat and happy.” But “part of the release criteria with the National Marine Fisheries Service is that animals have to be sighted.”
Luckily, the National Marine Fisheries Service has a network of people and institutions who can help when an animal can’t be released. The mammal center began looking for Coolio’s new home in mid-December, when they realized he was blind, and they contacted the Pittsburgh Zoo about six weeks later.
While the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center and Pittsburgh Zoo representatives negotiated Coolio’s transfer, the seal grew. Consuming 30–40 pounds of Pacific herring a day, Coolio gained over 350 pounds. Since he was no longer starving, the center cut down Coolio’s fish consumption to 10 pounds a day, Wood said.
Meanwhile, the center is currently caring for 15 weaned elephant seal pups, the most since its inception in the 1980s, Wood said. He speculated that many of the pups come from a rookery on Castle Rock.
Pups nurse on some of the richest milk in the animal kingdom for about a month, growing from around 75 pounds to 200–300 pounds, Wood said. After it has weaned, the pup will use its fat stores to sustain itself as it learns to swim and hunt, but if there isn’t a food source, the seal could become severely weakened.
Malnourished elephant seal pups have been brought into rehabilitation centers up and down the California coast, Wood said. The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito is currently caring for 90, he said.
Most of the pups at the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center had returned to their birth weight when they were found, some on Humboldt County beaches, Wood said. Volunteers are working to bulk them up, he said.
“We’d like them to be nice and rounded, 150 pounds at most,” Wood said.
Once he is at his new home, Coolio will continue to grow, Biggs said. In the wild, bull northern elephant seals can reach 5,100 pounds. And even though he’s a yearling, Coolio is already starting to grow into the proboscis that gives his species its name.
“We’re really excited,” Biggs said. “In the early 1900s the number of elephant seals was down to a handful. Now there are over 200,000 animals. They are wonderful seals.”