Partnering with CIMWI to Rescue and Rehab Malnourished Sea Lions

 The following is a blog post by Kurt Heizmann, Assistant Supervisor of Sea Lions and Birds of Prey at Shedd Aquarium, about his experience helping rescue and rehabilitate California sea lions.

After assessing new arrivals, CIMWI uses nontoxic crayons to make a unique color pattern on its head and shaves shapes corresponding to the animal's intake number into its fur. None of the identification marks are permanent.
After assessing new arrivals, CIMWI uses nontoxic crayons to make a unique color pattern on the animal’s head and shaves shapes corresponding to the animal’s intake number into its fur. None of the identification marks are permanent. ©Shedd Aquarium

As part of Shedd Aquarium’s ongoing commitment to lending our expertise to animal rescue organizations in need, our animal care team was more than willing to send a few of our staff members to California last month to help the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI) with their rescue efforts. Based on their need for sea lion animal care specialists and my seven years of sea lion experience at Shedd, I was able to do my part in helping save species globally.

CIMWI is a nonprofit based in Ventura County, California that thrives off of its volunteers.  The organization was founded in 2006 and now has more than 100 volunteers. The folks at CIMWI are dedicated to positively impacting conservation through marine mammal rescue, rehabilitation, research and education. At this time, they’re particularly focused on the rescue and rehabilitation efforts of California sea lions because of the unusual mortality event (UME) that’s currently rocking sea lion populations on the west coast.

A UME is defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and is described as a marine mammal stranding of unprecedented numbers, often involving significant die-off, and requires immediate action. There are many organizations across the globe that respond to UME’s like this one, CIMWI being one of them.

CIMWI has taken in record numbers of stranded and sick sea lion pups, along with adults and seals, in the last four of its 10 years of rapid-response rescue and rehabilitation work. In the first two months of 2016, staff members admitted 89 pups—four times as many animals as they rescued in all of 2011. Scientists are predicting that this UME is a result of El Nino weather conditions.

Starving sea lions often made their way inland in search of food. Sometimes this led them to parking lots or locals' driveways, as pictured above. Photo by Brenna Hernandez/Shedd Aquarium
Starving sea lions often make their way inland in search of food. Sometimes this leads them to parking lots or locals’ driveways, as pictured above. ©Shedd Aquarium

At a given time, the CIMWI facility usually has about 40 rescued animals, all divided into five different holding areas based on their health. The healthiest animals that are closest to being released are held in an outdoor area of the facility. While I was there, approximately 18 animals were close to release. All others are held inside the facility where they are separated into four pens based on strength and how much food they’re consuming.

Each day was spent checking up on each patient and helping with fish preparation. Fish prep included cutting it up for those animals that were not yet eating whole fish, preparing medications and injecting the fish with dextrose to give the emaciated pups extra sugar. Then I joined the rehab team—four to 10 volunteers on any given day—to do rounds on the four indoor pens.

While the pups outdoors were fed as a group so that they could learn to compete for fish, the indoor pups were fed individually. We made sure they received the medicine- and dextrose-injected fish first, then gave them the rest of their base diet. While feeding them, we had to be especially conscious of our interactions with the animals to make sure they didn’t grow too comfortable with humans, which could put them in danger after their release. Thus, none of the food came straight from our hands.

Kurt Heizmann Helps at CIMWI
Each new arrival received a battery of medications. Electrolytes and dextrose were given subcutaneously. If the pup had lice, it also got an antiparasite medication. ©Shedd Aquarium

After a little over two weeks at CIMWI, I was fortunate enough to participate in the release of four rehabilitated sea lions. Three of the sea lions were rescued in early 2016, while one was the 339th rescue of 2015. After working with so many emaciated and malnourished sea lions day in and day out, many of which are expiring nearly as fast as they are arriving, it was extremely rewarding to be able to return healthy sea lions back to the wild. It might have taken them 10 to 12 weeks to recover, but those animals were given a second chance at life and the volunteers at CIMWI and our Shedd Aquarium staff made that possible. Our Shedd team looks forward to helping CIMWI in the future and continuing to rescue California sea lions in need.

While not all of us can hop on a plane to California to volunteer at CIMWI, our actions here in the Midwest can make a difference for sea lion populations. The biggest thing we can do is eat sustainably caught seafood, since the cause of the UME points toward lack of food. You can learn more about Shedd’s sustainable seafood program on our website. For the most up-to-date information about sustainably caught seafood options, visit

To give each sea lion its best chance of survival post-release, we made sure to limit human interaction. Thus, none of the food came straight from our hands. ©Shedd Aquarium

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District.