SHE WAS ONCE STRANDED ON AN ISLAND IN GEORGETOWN, MAINE
Animal care staff at Brookfield Zoo recently welcomed Georgette, nicknamed “Georgie,” a grey seal on October 21. Since her birth, it appears the approximately 7-year-old pinniped has had defects in both her eyes. This may be why, at only a couple months old in March 2013, she was found stranded on an island in Georgetown, Maine, which is located near the mouth of the Kennebec River and Gulf of Maine in the Atlantic Ocean. While being rehabilitated by staff at the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Biddeford, Maine, it was suspected that she suffered additional eye trauma prior to the time she stranded. Because she is fully blind in the left eye and functionally blind in her right eye, authorities at National Marine Fisheries Service deemed her unreleasable back to the wild. In June 2013, she was transferred to Detroit Zoo, where staff named her after the town where she was found.
At Brookfield Zoo, Georgie recently received a complete veterinary evaluation under anesthesia, during which a veterinary ophthalmologist further evaluated her eyes. As a result of abnormal development of visual pathways in the brain due to vision deprivation shortly after birth, Georgie displays a wandering nystagmus, a condition that results in rhythmic, regular movements of her eyes.
Even with her loss of vision, Georgie is getting well acclimated to her new home. Brookfield Zoo’s Seven Seas staff has a lot of experience in working with deaf and/or blind pinnipeds. Over the years, the zoo has provided a forever home to several grey seals and sea lions found stranded in the wild and unable to be returned due to similar situations like Georgie’s.
“Since Georgie has been blind her entire life, this is all she knows, and she has adapted very well to life in human care,” said Rita Stacey, curator of marine mammals for the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages the zoo. “With her move to Brookfield Zoo, Georgie hasn’t skipped a beat. She is an outgoing and curious seal and spends time exploring her new habitat and getting to know her new caretakers.”
The animal care team needs to interact with Georgie a little differently than the other pinnipeds. During husbandry training sessions, staff usually use visual cues when engaging with the animals. However, in Georgie’s case, staff use verbal, audible, and tactile cues. For instance, staff made a shaker target—a small buoy that is filled with rocks on the end of a short pole—so Georgie can hear and follow the sound when staff ask her to move between the four outdoor habitats.
In addition to getting to know the staff, this week Georgie is being reintroduced to Kiinaq (pronounced key-knack), a 19-year-old grey seal with whom she was also pool mates with when they were both at Detroit Zoo. The pairing of Georgie and Kiinaq is based on a recommendation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Grey Seal Species Survival Plan (SSP), which is a cooperative population management and conservation program for select species in accredited North American zoos and aquariums. Each SSP manages the breeding of a species to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable. Both grey seals have wild origins, making them very valuable genetically to the overall zoo and aquarium population. Eventually, Georgie also will be introduced to the zoo’s other grey seals—Tasha and Lily, who are both 16 years old, and Peanut and Celia, 9 month-old