Old age is catching up to Slick, a California sea lion at the Milwaukee County Zoo who will soon step back from his lifestyle of entertaining crowds and emerge as an ambassador for environmental conservation.
The 500-pound sea lion turned 30 over the Memorial Day weekend, marking a milestone for a species that would normally only survive up to 12 years in the wild, said Shelley Ballmann, president of Oceans of Fun, the zoo's marine mammal science and education center.
Slick is free of disease and is a relatively healthy animal, said Ballmann. The marine mammals receive regular checkups and veterinary care from zoo staff. Arriving at the Milwaukee County Zoo at age 6, Slick was born in northern California. The next oldest marine mammal in the facility is 23 years old.
Slick's lifetime in Wisconsin has been marked with regular entertainment shows for zoo visitors alongside seals and other sea lions.
'He is absolutely an amazing animal,' Ballmann said. He loves hugs, kisses and back rubs from his trainers, she said. 'He is a very well-known fan favorite. I have people who will post on our Facebook page how they have pictures with Slick from when they were children and now they're bringing their own children to the Milwaukee County Zoo.'
While Slick will 'write his own script' and continue to participate in the shows if he chooses, his new role will be largely spreading awareness of the dangers plaguing the world's oceans and depleting the number of sea lions, Ballmann said.
'California sea lions should live far longer than 8 to 12 years, but it's not happening anymore,' Ballmann said.
Factors like pollution, climate change causing food sources to move, noise pollution and predators are contributing to the shortening of sea lions' life span, she said.
During an Oceans of Fun show at the zoo May 31, an emcee mixed in factoids about marine wildlife conservation between sea lion and seal tricks of waving to the crowd, dangling small fish between their teeth and bending their necks so that their noses touched the center of their backs.
'He has taught thousands and thousands of people about marine mammals and conservation,' Ballmann said. 'You can't look at him without falling in love.'
Slick has held a special place in the hearts of many of his trainers — including Ballmann, who's worked with him for 25 years — but also Kelly Kamrath, of Hartland, who said the sea lion is much like a child to her.
Kamrath rubbed Slick's back, kissed him and wrapped her arms around his bulky neck in between feeding him small fish (he eats about 25 pounds of fish per day). Although a bit slower than his companions, the playful animal can still hoist himself onto the pool's edge to smile, wave a flipper, pose or whip his whiskers back and forth for anyone willing to watch.
'That's a good boy,' said Kamrath, who opened Slick's mouth to examine his large, pointy teeth without batting an eye.
The zoo will continue to use research on Slick's eating habits and growth to study the metabolic requirements of sea lions across the globe, Ballmann said.
'We love it because people fall in love with him and when they fall in love they have a desire to protect,' said Ballmann. 'He's made a difference.'