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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Unsinkable Bismarck

I went to the Denver Zoo yesterday since we were having a sunny and fairly warm February day.
I haven't been in quite a while, but I enjoy the zoo. I always come away having learned something new, and, of course, I just love animals.
Yesterday, I saw something that particularly piqued my interest.
I walked below the sea lion habitat to where it is possible to watch these graceful creatures swim. It is a sight to see these big goofy animals that lumber around on dry land take to the water with grace, agility, and speed.
There was only one sea lion swimming near the observation glass, and I was the only human on my side, so he immediately took notice of me and altered his lap circle to swim past where I was standing. Maybe he was showing off. Maybe he just wanted to get a look at me. Turnabout is fair play, after all.
Almost immediately, I noticed that there was something different about this fellow: his streamlined body came to a point at both ends. He had no back flippers!
After a few more minutes of observing this remarkable creature seemingly unhindered by his disability (and taking the best video I could with my cellphone), I went back upstairs to find out what I could about this sea lion.
What I found out was this: the sea lion's name is Bismarck (as in the battleship that lost its rudder; funny), and he was found as a pup off the coast of Newport Beach, California, malnourished and with no back flippers. Here are some pictures that Daily Pilot reporter Brianna Bailey put up on her blog and an accompanying article.
No one knows what happened to his flippers. The wound had healed over when he was found. Nursed back to health by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center and taken in by the Denver Zoo, Bismarck is now very strong (his front flippers are very muscular to compensate), healthy, and happy, living in the Mile High City. The zoo staff I spoke to were hard-pressed to come up with any challenges that Bismarck hasn't overcome as a result of having no back flippers, except that he has a little bit more (but just a little)  trouble on ice than his habitat mates.
This is another thing that I love about zoos. The old days of animals being captured in the wild and thrown in cages for the viewing public are over. Now the animals that you see are either born in captivity (a practice that is preserving species whose numbers are rapidly dwindling in the wild) or, like Bismarck, rescued and unable to return to the wild.
These animals are ensured a long, happy, well-fed life, and we are ensured the types of experiences that I was able to have yesterday: eye contact with a gorilla, listening to the roar of a female lion up close, watching the hierarchy behavior of a pack of African wild dogs, standing inches away from a deadly king cobra without fear for my life, and seeing a rare (and highly endangered) rhinoceros lay down to take a nap in the warm sun.
As I stood a few feet away from a very large tiger, I was reminded that the human species really only dominates this planet because we were the only ones with any interest in domination.
While zoos may have at one point in our history been on par with carnival exhibitions, they are now centers for conservation and education. Every time I go to the zoo, my eyes are opened just a little bit wider to the plight of species with whom we "share" this planet.
How long has it been since you've had a staring contest with a giraffe? My guess is too long.

By the way, here's some of that video I shot. It's only cell phone quality, but you still get a pretty good idea of what a great swimmer Bismarck is.

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