British Columbia

'He's been suffering for quite some time': Rescued sea lion had gunshot wound in its head

Last week the Vancouver Aquarium met one of its biggest rescue challenges — transporting a massive Steller sea lion suffering from bullet wounds in Ucluelet to safety.

The animal, named Ukee, is severely emaciated and possibly blind

It took several people and a crane to load Ukee, an adult male Steller sea lion, onto a truck to the Vancouver Aquarium for treatment. (Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre faced one of its biggest rescue challenges last week: a massive sea lion suffering from gunshot wounds was found on the rocky shoreline of Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island. 

A team of seven people from the rescue centre — accompanied by staff from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Parks Canada and community volunteers — worked to rescue the animal named Ukee.

With help from a truck and crane from local company Windsor Plywood, they were able to load the sea lion onto a truck and bring it via ferry to Vancouver.

Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, said Ukee, an adult male Steller sea lion, is one of the largest animals admitted to the centre.  

"He's about 300 to 350 kilos, but that's him as a very sick, emaciated animal. He should probably weigh another 200 to 250 kilos, at least," Haulena said.

"He is in such poor condition. The weight loss would have taken weeks or months. He's been suffering for quite some time."

An x-ray showed the sea lion has suffered at least one gunshot wound to the head. (Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)

Haulena said an x-ray revealed the animal had been shot at least once in the head. The team will do a more complete examination under anesthetics over the next few days to see if there are other issues.

Gunshot wounds not uncommon

It's not the first time the centre has rescued a marine animal with gunshot wounds. In 2013, the centre rescued a sea otter named Walter near Tofino, blinded and riddled with dozens of birdshot pellets. Last year, it rescued a California sea lion named Señor Cinco from Vancouver's Spanish Banks, also blinded with gunshot wounds to the head

"Unfortunately, we do see some gunshot animals with some frequency," Haulena said, adding he was unsure who could be the perpetrator. 

In this photo from 2013, Dr. Martin Haulena of the Vancouver Aquarium carries Walter to the recovery area after the rescued sea otter underwent oral surgery to repair and extract teeth that were damaged by a shotgun blast. (Vancouver Aquarium)

He said gunshot wounds in large animals like sea lions often prolong suffering and anguish. 

"The bullets don't kill. What they do is cause an incredible amount of suffering," he said. "That's just a horrible way to go."

He says if you do spot a marine mammal in distress, stay back and call the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at 604-258-SEAL (7325), or the DFO hotline at 1-800-465-4336.

Prognosis uncertain

Although the aquarium's team has been administering antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and providing plenty of fluids for rehydration, Haulena said he is quite worried about Ukee's prognosis. 

Listen to Martin Haulena speak with All Points West host Robyn Burns:

Referring to Señor Cinco, the California sea lion found on Vancouver's Spanish Banks, Haulena said Ukee is not responding to treatment as quickly.

"I do worry he has some permanent brain damage in addition to the ocular trauma. That's something we'll need to assess once he's stabilized," he said. 

As for whether Ukee will be able to return to the wild, Haulena said they would have to see whether he has the ability to forage for food and avoid predators.

"If he's completely blind, that would not be conducive to that."

With files from All Points West


  • An earlier version of the headline on this story incorrectly stated it was a seal that was rescued in Uclulet. In fact, it was a sea lion.
    Oct 16, 2018 8:45 AM PT