Blind elephant seal settles in to new home at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

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Just two days after he was flown in from northern California aboard a FedEx jet, Coolio, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium's new northern elephant seal, slowly paddled around a small indoor pool getting used to a new home he will never see.

That's because Coolio is blind, the result of injuries inflicted by scavengers -- probably gulls -- before the then 1-year-old seal pup was found weak and suffering from severe trauma to his head and eyes on a Crescent City beach in November.

Because northern elephant seal mothers leave their weaner pups to fend for themselves just a few months after they are born, it's not unusual to find them weakened and hungry as they learn to search for food. But Coolio was in especially bad shape because of the head and eye injuries, and also extremely emaciated, said veterinarian Dennis Wood, who volunteers at Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, an all volunteer animal rescue facility in Crescent City.

Pittsburgh Zoo cares for blind elephant seal

Coolio, a blind elephant seal, is undergoing care and rehabilitation at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. (Video by Doug Oster; 4/25/2014)

"He was in an extreme weakened condition and could not fend off scavengers who attacked him," Dr. Wood said.

Under the care of Dr. Wood and staff at the Marine Mammal Center, Coolio recovered from his injuries and steadily gained weight, but he could not be safely released back into the ocean because he is blind.

"We are part of the marine rescue, rehabilitation and release network. In rare cases, we have an animal who doesn't meet the criteria for release and being visual is a critical criteria for release back into the wild," Dr. Wood said.

In such cases, he said, the animal is euthanized unless a facility is found that can take it.

A nationwide search for a facility large enough to permanently house Coolio, which already tips the scales at more than 500 pounds and as an adult could grow to 13 feet long and weigh between 4,500 and 5,000 pounds, led to the Pittsburgh zoo, which has facilities designed for the special needs of large marine mammals in its Water's Edge exhibit.

"We were looking to increase our marine animal collection, and they were looking for a good, comfortable home for him," said Katy Wozniak, lead aquatics keeper at he zoo.

Coolio now is the only male elephant seal housed in a zoo or aquarium in North America, said Barbara Baker, zoo president and CEO.

"He has special needs that will require a different level of care, treatment and training that we know we can provide for him here," Ms. Baker said.

Ms. Wozniak said Coolio will be kept in the 25-by-25-foot indoor pool area until he becomes accustomed to his surroundings and the staff. She declined to say how long that would take or when Coolio might go on exhibit for public viewing.

When he does go on exhibit, it will be in the 40-foot-long, 275,000-gallon Water's Edge Tank, now inhabited by sand tiger sharks. When Coolio goes into that tank, the sharks will be removed, at least initially.

"This will be a long process because he's blind," Ms. Wozniak said. "We'll need to make him comfortable and need to train him using sound and tactile touches. We're going to be learning as much as he's going to be learning."

Megan Paluh, the zoo's marine mammal keeper who went to California to pick up Coolio, said he eats 5 pounds of herring in the morning and another five for dinner, and those meals will increase in size and variety of fish over time. But with photographers clicking away Friday morning, he twice refused the fish she proffered at pool's edge.

"He's been eating, but the cameras may have put him off," Ms. Paluh said. "He's still getting acclimated to the staff and his routine."

Tracy Gray, a zoo spokeswoman, said the normal life span for northern elephant seals in the ocean is 9 to 10 years. But they live longer in zoos and aquariums because of the medical care they can receive, the availability of food and the absence of predators.

Dr. Wood said Coolio's left eye, which is shrunken and severely damaged, may eventually be removed and a prosthetic eye inserted. The right eye is full-sized and less damaged, and he said there is a slight chance an operation could restore its vision.

"I expect Pittsburgh will do a complete assessment of the eyes, including an examination by an ophthalmologist," Dr. Wood said.

"But he already has acute hearing. And with his sensual whiskers, he's very tough to fool, even without his sight."

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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