The Shedd Aquarium sits at the end of a pier in Lake Michigan with a sweet view of the Chicago skyline wrapped around the lake shore.
Inside, they put a lot of effort into making visitors from the Pacific Northwest feel at home.
Walking into the sea lion cove, a waterfall, huge fake conifers and a host named Herb greet visitors.
“Welcome to the Shedd Aquarium,” he said. “And welcome to the Pacific Northwest.”
We’re no longer in Chicago, he said.
“Now, you’re somewhere else – around Northern California, Oregon, Washington state,” he said.
The geographic illusion probably isn’t fooling Biff, the sea lion who has lived here — next to a pool of beluga whales — since 2009.
He’s one of just 15 Columbia River sea lions that have been rescued from certain death by zoos and aquariums across the country.
Over the past decade, Northwest wildlife managers have lethally removed 175 California sea lions from the Columbia River. They were killed after getting caught eating too much salmon at Bonneville Dam, where fish ladders create a kind of sea lion buffet.
Biff was among the first sea lions caught making repeat visits to that buffet in 2009. But he was lucky. The Shedd Aquarium was able to give him a new home while others were euthanized.
Behind The Scenes
On a recent day at the aquarium, Biff wasn’t out on the exhibit floor with the whales and fake conifers. He was in a back room where he does his training sessions.
He was lying on the floor behind metal bars with his own little playground, which consisted of two hot tub-sized pools and a tunnel made of what looked like bent-over bike racks.
Biff still has his brand, C-700, seared into his back. Those are the markings managers used to identify and remove sea lions from Bonneville Dam.
With just a few feet between Biff and visitors, trainer Kurt Heizmann blew a little whistle, and Biff sprung into action.
“Swim!” Heizmann said. Biff jumped in and out of the pool.
“Spin!” Biff jumped around in a circle.
“Wave!” Biff held up one flipper, then the other.
At one point, he flopped his massive sea lion body through the bike-rack tunnel and dove into the second pool. Then he jumped out and flipped his tail up over his head in a sea lion headstand.
Want To Pet Him?
After each correct move, Heizmann tossed little fish called capelin to Biff. They’re about 6 inches long — nothing compared to the 20-pound salmon Biff used to eat on the Columbia.
Incidentally, he’s lost more than 250 pounds on the aquarium diet. When he got here he weighed around 900 pounds; now he’s around 630. But he’s still quite big.
Biff dazzled his viewers as he moved quickly in response to commands. And just when the list of tricks had been exhausted, Heizmann offered to pet Biff. They call this doing “tactile.”
The trainer called him over and Biff sat up next to the bars.
“You can just go ahead and give him a little rub on the chest right there,” he said.
His fur was cold and wet. Petting a wild animal — knowing he would be dead if he weren’t here, behind bars — highlights the dilemma people have managing hungry sea lions.
Trainer Eric Daniel remembers when Biff first arrived at the aquarium.
“He adapted quickly,” Daniel said. “He’s a very smart, very sharp animal. Very food motivated. All the things that got him into trouble in the first place.”
‘A Conservation Conundrum’
Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president of animal health at the aquarium, said having Biff around helps teach people in the Midwest about the conflict that brought him here.
“We’re really faced with a conservation conundrum,” he said. “As these animals do really well in the wild, they tend to want to be in similar places that people want to be.”
Van Bonn said aquariums probably aren’t the solution to sea lions eating salmon at dams.
“There are 32,000 animals that call this place home and we’ve got a lot of marine mammals now,” he said. “The number of animals that are potentially needing homes far exceeds our capacity as a community.”
And that number is likely to grow.
Oregon wildlife managers recently proposed killing sea lions at a second location: Willamette Falls. It’s another bottleneck for fish upstream from Portland.
Sea lions are now eating more than a quarter of the steelhead run there, and biologists say if they don’t kill the the sea lions, the fish may very well go extinct.