Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Poor, Forgotten Seals

We've all mistaken someone for another person, right?  Let's set aside the completely uncontrollable fact that there are doppelgängers of people everywhere; we have all at least called someone by the wrong name.  We've mistaken a person we don't know very well who we haven't seen in a long time for another, equally-barely-known person.  And let's be honest: some of us in this room have had lengthy phone conversations with someone they thought was a guy they were kind of dating but it turned out to be a complete stranger and the only reason that became apparent after 20 minutes was because the guy started saying really gross, suggestive things and I tried to politely end the conversation by saying I had to be at a class that he was in soon but he had no idea what I was talking about and then I realized OMG THIS IS A STRANGER.

Doppelgängers create easy potential for mistaken identity.  Unless of course, one of the doppelgängers is dead.

Humans mix each other up all of the time.  It's normal, but it doesn't mean it's not embarrassing.  I'd contend we strive for most of our social lives to remember people's names not just to be polite, but just to make sure we don't experience that awful feeling after a case of mistaken identity.  

But you know who has to deal with that on a daily, even hourly basis?  

Well, there are a few:

River otter or wolverine?

Manatee or sea turtle?

Commerson's dolphin or baby killer whale?

But I'm here to talk about one in particular (arguably the worst case):


Seal? Is that a seal?

Yes, seals.  

I feel bad for seals, really.  Because true seals are really cool animals.  They are adorable, they are roly-poly, some of them are total BAMFs.  Elephant seals are massive, gray seals kill harbor porpoises, leopard seals are one of the most terrifying things on the planet next to serial killers and public speaking.  Seals are one of the most graceful swimmers in the animal kingdom, they are intelligent, and they are beautiful.

Disclaimer: For seal images, I typed in "cartoon seals".  The following graphics are alleged "seals", but content may be intellectually disturbing.

Google search: cartoon seal.  Result: This atrocity.

But for some reason, real seals are never identified correctly.   Everyone thinks that sea lions are seals.  So what does that mean seals are?

This phenomenon is one of the best things to witness in a park guest, especially if your facility has both seals and sea lions and they are in separate locations.  The guest first spends 25 minutes staring at a park map showing individual animal group locations using complicated methods such as cartoon drawings and large, block letters with words such as "SEAL" and "SEA LION".   They then observe a 20 minute sea lion show where an incredibly mysterious and as yet-unnamed scientific process occurs in which all educational information passes completely through the ears and brain and is shot back out into the air where it will eventually climb into outer space, bouncing around from satellite to satellite until aliens pick up the signal, translate it into their language and say, "Oh, THAT'S the difference between seals and sea lions?"

So your park guest leaves the sea lion show with a great big smile on their face and an appreciation for marine mammals and updates their Facebook status with, "jus saw a hilaaaaaries seal show!".  And everything is copacetic in their world until they reach the seal habitat. 

This piece is entitled: "Cartoon seal fishing".   Are those tusks?! 

And there it happens, right on their face.  They stare at the seals, wondering why a tiny voice deep inside their brain is saying, "THIS IS A SEAL" but their most conscious self is saying "BUT YOU JUST SAW SEALS OVER THERE" and both of these voices scream "THESE ARE NOT THE SAME ANIMAL."

Their face betrays the internal struggle.  It's a puzzled but anguished expression.  Some people never make it past this stage.  Others take control of a seemingly uncontrollable situation and frantically look for signage around the habitat to slake their thirst for an answer.  And when they see the sign "Harbor Seal", they almost always have a look of disgust or confusion, as if to say, "THAT'S a seal?"

Uh, not even close.

Of course, any good zookeeper who identifies this cognitive dissonance will approach the person to help them clarify and sort through their confusion.  The one-on-one conversation has a higher chance at conveying information that the person will retain for a period of time.  But this conversation often begets some interesting speculation on the part of the guest.

Some just refuse to see the difference:

"Is these seals the one I just seen in the show?"  …as if there is some clandestine, underground tunnel that connects the habitats so that when it's showtime, we flush the seals down the drain, into the tunnel and into the show….and then reverse it back to the other habitat after it's all over.

I can't even identify this animal.

Some accept defeat:

"So these are seals?  So what were those animals I just saw in the show?"

And others refuse to admit they are confused.  Their ego gets the best of them, and they try to make an educated guess:

"So where did you get these manatees from?"

"The sea otters are so cute!"

Before you go thinking I'm some kind of giant jerk for lightheartedly picking fun at customers, let me seriously state here that the entire reason for zoos and aquariums to exist is so we can help educate people on zoological issues and facts that they did not know about before.  Not knowing something is 100% okay.   Of course we as animal keepers occasionally forget that the world does not revolve around our taxa in our animal family, because most of the world only sees animals in forms such as: dogs and chicken nuggets.

Even in the zoo world, animal keepers have a difficult time identifying animals that are completely out of their areas of expertise.  For example, I can't tell you the difference between most types of primates.  Those little dudes are hard and I know they have different colors, but I will just call them monkeys even though I realize that's probably wrong (is it?). 

I have no clue what this is.

True story, in the 90s a trainer posed a question in the International Marine Animal Trainers Association's (IMATA) quarterly publication Soundings asking for advice dealing with their seal who could not perform a front-flipper stand.  The trainer was especially confused because, admittedly, they had seen plenty of seals do front-flipper stands, so why was their seal making no progress?

Unfortunately, the trainer was working with an actual seal. Unfortunately, he/she was referencing a behavior that only sea lions could do: it is physically impossible for a seal to do this behavior.  But even the trainer did not realize that there was a difference.  

Here is photographic proof that seals CAN do a REAR flipper stand.

What is it about sea lions that make seals so forgettable?  

Sometimes I imagine seals sitting around their haul-outs, talking about how unfair it all is.

Seal 1: Like I've always said, sea lions secretly market themselves as seals to take the
              glory away from us.  It's propaganda and conspiracy.
Seal 2: I think it's simply human simplicity.  They think that anything with a dog face and
              flippers is a seal.
Seal 3: You are both being too cynical.  I like to think of it as a compliment: humans think
              sea lions are so great that they call them a seal.  
Seal 1:  Oh please, Seal 3.  STFU.  
Seal 2: Yeah, not even trainers can keep us straight.  We might as well not even BE seals

The movie Andre is probably the best and most embarrassing illustration of this fact.  Seals everywhere will weep for time eternal until the day that Andre is remade with an actual seal.  Let me say this another way: the real Andre was a seal.  Not a sea lion.  Yet, a sea lion was the animal used in the movie.  

In fairness, seals definitely don't look good in Hawai'ian shirts.

If you were a seal and were aware of this fact, wouldn't you be livid?  No?  Think about it.  Why did Hollywood choose a sea lion instead of an actual seal?

I'll tell you why.  A rotating os coxa.  Sea lions can tuck their rear flippers underneath them and walk, making them agile on land.  Seals cannot.  And, as we all know,  in Hollywood, everything (such as Miley Cyrus' career) revolves around the almighty Pelvis.

Os coxae

In actuality, the real Andre did a lot of amazing behaviors.  His human family taught him to do a number of acrobatic aerials that you don't tend to see often even in modern seal shows and presentations.  His personality, relationship, and antics were just as impressive as those portrayed in the sea lion movie version of himself.   And yet, the Sea-Lion-As-Seal concept prevails and poisons the minds of humans everywhere….

A real photo of Andre (yes, really)

….leaving the seals to ponder why.

So for the sake of alleviating mental anguish and inferiority complexes of seals everywhere, I've spent countless hours creating a quiz scientifically proven to permanently etch into your cerebrum this pertinent information to discern a seal from a sea lion.  Feel free to print this out and use it as a pocket reference.

A real seal!

1. Does the marine mammal have tootsie roll ears?
    Yes: It's a sea lion
    No: It's a seal.

2. Does the marine mammal walk on all fours?
    Yes: It's a sea lion
    No: It's a seal

3. Does the marine mammal have claws on its front flippers?
    Yes: It's a seal
    No: It's a sea lion

4. When in motion, does the marine mammal look like a dog trapped in a sleeping bag?
    Yes: It's a seal
    No: It's a sea lion
    It is a dog in a sleeping bag: Seek the attention of a qualified veterinarian

So pay heed, dear readers.  If you have confused the two, now is your chance to turn the page.  Start afresh.  Pass along this knowledge to others (preferably, to my mom).  In closing, we all can do our roly-poly sea pals a favor and forever remove their identify crisis.  We love them for being seals, and we love the sea lions for being sea lions.  Equal love for two incredible kinds of animals.

Tee hee!!


  1. "When in motion, does the marine mammal look like a dog trapped in a sleeping bag?"

    Best description of a seal ever. I enjoyed this article. Unfortunately, the average human seems to call things by what they think of first, rather than find out what it actually is.

  2. We actually have both Harbor Seals and Sea Lions at our local zoo. Generally, their Underwater Viewing Window is the place I choose to spend most of my time in the infrequent zoo trips, and I can pick up on the craziest conversations. Retold here is perhaps the funniest I heard:
    Person 1: OH COOL LOOK
    Person 2: Woah! What is it?
    Person 1: It's a manatee, duh.
    Person 1: So we're watching mermaids?
    Person 2: YES!!!!!!
    Trainer: Um, actually, these are some of our Sea Lions and Sea-
    Person 1: Oh, so we're watching seals?
    Person 2: Oh yeah. Come one, lets go watch the cougars.
    Trainer: I…..Well, enjoy your trip!
    Me: *face palm*
    There you have it. The funniest dialogue overheard on a zoo trip. I'm sure you get stuff like this a lot too?

  3. This should be required reading for all!

  4. Great article! Although it makes things a bit more complicated when you are a fur seal keeper ;)