It’s not unusual to see cute critters with whiskers at the Spokane County Interstate Fair, but it is unusual to see ones with flippers.
This year there are sea lions at the fair as part of the Animal Training and Research International sea lion encounter based in Moss Landing, California. The organization is run by Jenifer Zeligs, who holds a doctorate in psychobiology and created the program.
Their appearance at the fair is one of only three public appearances held every year on the West Coast, Zeligs said. The appearances are an education and outreach opportunity and are also a way to raise money for the program.
“We come for the sea lions to have a bizarre vacation,” she said.
As two sea lions frolicked in their pool during a break between photo opportunities, Zeligs watched them along with a crowd of onlookers. She’s been working with sea lions since 1980, when she was a young girl.
After an attempt at horseback riding revealed that she was allergic to horses, Zeligs’ mother signed her up for a class on animal training at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
“I was so excited,” she said.
It turned out that she was pretty good at animal training and hung around until they put her to work. She did things like cleaning buckets at first, but after a few years she was trusted with feeding the animals. She worked as a veterinary technician and a dog and exotic animal trainer until Zeligs launched the program she currently runs.
At first she focused on research in the open ocean, then turned to working with sea lions in a more structured location. She runs an aquarium full of sea lions that have been rescued and are unreleasable.
“There’s a lot of hard luck stories,” she said.
One sea lion, Cali, was exposed to a neurological toxin in utero. She was born prematurely and her mother died.
“It was touch and go for the first three years,” Zeligs said.
Cali is now 14 and is often joined by Nemo, a 20-year-old male who was shot in the face, presumably by a fisherman. He’s had three reconstructive surgeries.
Zeligs said her work has taught her to treat animals with respect and kindness.
“Animals are all individuals, just like humans,” she said.
The sea lions are available for photos at the fair and Zeligs also does shows throughout the day that mix entertainment and education. She demonstrates how they take care of the animals by showing how they brush the sea lions’ teeth. She also talks about the importance of maintaining the environment so wild sea lions don’t lose their habitat.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is twice the size of Texas and the floating trash is 9 feet deep, she said. She encourages people to recycle what they can and properly dispose of their trash.
While her sea lions have a strong bond with humans, Zeligs stresses that people should not approach wild sea lions.
“Wild animals should be left wild,” she said. “You should keep your distance.”
Jana Martin, who has been working with the program for more than three years, said she started out by taking Zeligs’ Techniques and Theories of Animal Training class at California State University Monterey Bay.
“She has a way of teaching and doing everything so the animals come first,” Martin said.
Martin said she wants to be able to care for rescued wildlife like Zeligs does.
“She is great,” Martin said.
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