Reese 3
Reese is a female California Sea lion at Oceans of Fun in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Reese is one determined pup and continues to fill us with hope!  Born to her mother, Geneva, on July 10th, 2015 she followed the typical milestones for sea lion pups from bonding with her mom to weaning.  Sea lion pups wean from their mothers and begin eating fish between 9 – 12 months of age. In April of 2016, however, everything about the process was different and eating became quite the challenge.  While it was apparent that she was hungry, she wanted nothing to do with fish!  As her mother’s milk supply decreased, Reese became frantic and attempted to nurse from anyone who would allow her to suckle.  Animals are amazing and Makaia (who had not had a pup in several years) began lactating after consistent stimulation from Reese!  In Reese’s best interest we allowed Makaia to nurture her for several months.  She was very small and due to her refusal to eat fish was not growing as she should have been. Our goal was to ensure Reese’s health by allowing her to reach a weight where we could safely do a health assessment on her to determine if there was an underlying cause to her aversion toward fish.

Last December, Reese finally reached a weight of 60 lbs. and our veterinary and care team put her under anesthesia to assess her health. We discovered Reese has a birth defect called Oropharyngeal Stenosis; her esophagus is oddly shaped and only one quarter the size of what it should be. The finding was heartbreaking as surgery was not possible and it was unknown as to whether this little pup would ever be able to eat fish and survive. It became clear that eating fish was painful for Reese and so it became aversive. Eating fish however is essential to survival for a sea lion. If Reese were in the wild, she would have no chance of survival. Oceans of Fun is dedicated to providing the best care possible to each and every one of our animals and giving up on Reese was not an option. We decided to give it our best shot to try and teach Reese how to eat very small fish (Lake Smelt) with the hopes of her discovering that small fish was possible and without pain, positive! Our animal care team worked relentlessly to reintroduce fish to the youngest member of our family and amazingly it has worked!  We guided fish into the area of her throat where she could swallow successfully and painlessly.  Once she realized eating fish was positive we were able to gradually increase the size of fish offered.  Our diligence has paid off as Reese began teaching herself how to position and swallow the fish independently!

We are continuing to celebrate Reese’s success!  Thanks to the on-going dedication of our animal care specialists and Reese’s fortitude, she is eating 14 lbs. of capelin independently and growing every day.  Reese enjoys eating alongside her seal and sea lion friends in the main pool.  As she continues to thrive, we have introduced a target and a clicker laying the foundation for her formal training to begin!  Being one of the first zoological institutions to encounter this naturally occurring birth defect in a California sea lion, we are thankful that we were able to help Reese and ensure she is happy, healthy, and pain free.  Her story is special and we will keep you updated as we progress.  We are thrilled to share her success with all of you!


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