London·Video

60 years after his death, no one seems to know where Slippery the sea lion is buried

Sixty years after Slippery the sea lion's escape from London's Storybook Gardens touched off a media frenzy and an international dispute, a retired zookeeper says it's "sad" that few reminders still exist of the animal's legendary misadventure.

Decades after he put Storybook Gardens on the map, Slippery's story seems to be fading away

Fun facts about Slippery the sea lion with Arthur McLelland 1:10

Sixty years after an escaped sea lion touched off an international media frenzy, a cross border custody dispute and drew out a half the city's population to a jubilant homecoming parade, no-one seems to know where Slippery, the most famous animal in London's history, is buried. 

I can't say exactly where it is.- John Riddel

"I'm not 100 per cent sure where it is myself," said John Riddle, the manager of Storybook Gardens in London, the children's theme park where Slippery the sea lion was supposed to delight crowds of children and their parents at the park's grand opening in the summer of 1958. 

"There were quite a few substantial renovations in the park when it was made into a year-round facility in 2003," he said. "I can't say exactly where it is."

Strange twist of fate

Slippery's bronze statue still sits just outside the front entrance of Storybook Gardens in London, Ont. The statue is starting to show its age and there is no placque or sign explaining why its there. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

It's a strange twist of fate for an animal who, after running amok for just 10 days, captured the collective imagination of millions of people in Canada and the United States, inspiring memorabilia, books, plays and a documentary over the following decades.

The sea lion, who died nearly a decade after his escape, was lowered into the frozen ground on a cold winter's day in 1967.

Bill Clarke, who was the zookeeper at Storybook Gardens from 1977 to 1997, said the animal was buried under a large boulder affixed with an official plaque inside the park. 

Today there's no sign of it, along with the sky-coloured concrete pool that once housed the park's sea lions. The area has been remodeled as a children's miniature village, complete with a bank, a general store and city hall. 

'That's sad'

Bill Clarke was the zookeeper at Storybook Gardens for two decades, from 1977 to 1997 where heard the story of Slippery the sea lion from the people who relived it countless times. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"Who are those children going to tell the story to?" The 79-year-old Clarke said. "That's sad."

"I can remember parents and grandparents taking their little kids to go see the sea lions," he said.  "'Then it would be a walk around to the front west corner and the sign, 'and this is where he went into the river and there's the river over the other side there and that's where he was,' that's gone."

"It's not a great battle, it's not a great event, but it's part of the people's history of London," he said.  "I think it was important because it brought people together."

Today, the only physical reminder of the legendary sea lion is a bronze statue with a scratched and peeling paint job that's been bolted into a pond just outside the park's front gate.

How Slippery put Storybook on the map

Slippery memorabilia 0:36

The problem though, according to Arthur McLelland, a librarian who works in the city archive, the London Room, is there's nothing to tell anyone what the statue represents. 

"It's in a rather prominent area because the entrance is right there to the park," he said. "I think there should be something, considering it was 60 years ago. It's kind of a neat celebration."

Most ironic of all, according to McLelland, was that it was Slippery's escape and the subsequent publicity that put Storybook Gardens on the map. 

"He was on all kinds of things," McLelland said. "They sold popcorn and he was on the back. His route was displayed and of course, the city promoted 'come to London' and one of the major attractions was Storybook Gardens." 

"I think it's important to retell the story, I think because it captures a moment in London's history where we were involved in an international incident that was a good news story. It wasn't a kidnapping, it wasn't a terrorist attack, it was just an escape from a pool with a sea lion," he said. "It brought people together." 

How Slippery escaped remains a mystery

The old seal pool at Storybook Gardens no long exists, it's been replaced with a miniature village. Slippery's grave, a boulder affixed with a commemorative plaque, once stood where fire department now stands (red building on left). No one seems to know what happened to the grave. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

To this day, it's still a mystery exactly how Slippery the Sea lion escaped, but Clarke thinks it was as simple as someone forgetting to turn off the valve for the water that fed the pool. 

"It just came up to the point where it levelled off and overflowed and Slippery was probably right at ground level and slipped out, no effort, no problem at all," he said. "He just headed through the cedar hedge and down into the Thames River." 

Clarke was only 19  on June 16, 1958, when Slippery began the odyssey that would capture the attention of millions of people in Canada and the United States, a saga that during Clarke's 20 year tenure as the park's zookeeper, from 1977 to 1997, he heard countless times from those who experienced it first-hand. 

"Gosh, I'm getting to be the last one who remembers the first generation who were there, who did this, " he said.   

Retired Storybook Gardens zookeeper Bill Clarke holds a newspaper article from the United States that shows the Toledo Zoo's Phil Skeldon shooting Slippery with a tranquilizer gun at the mouth of the Maumee River. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Reports of sightings began to trickle in as the animal made his way downstream, from workers along the river banks, from bridges and people fishing along the shore. 

"No-one sees seals in fresh water, especially in 1958." - Arthur McLelland

"I mean this was a big thing because no-one sees seals in fresh water, especially in 1958," said McLelland.

"Eventually they realized he was missing and they sent people down to catch him," he said, noting city employees tried and failed on several occasions, even stooping to playing audio recordings of sea lion sounds in a half-baked attempt to lure the animal back.

"It didn't work," he said. "There were various people who tried to catch him." 

Those failed attempts earned Slippery his name, before his escape his name was plain old Cyril when city officials purchased him from California for $150 (about $1,300 today).

As the days stretched on, the name stuck and Slippery's story began to draw lots of attention. The London Free Press even went so far as to offer a $200 reward to anyone who could capture the animal. 

Over a period of nearly a week and a half, Slippery made his way down the Thames River to Lake St. Clair, where he entered the Detroit River and swam out to Lake Erie, where he lingered for a few days on the American side, near the mouth of the Maumee River, near Toledo, Ohio. 

Shot by a Toledo zookeeper

Toledo zookeeper Phil Skeldon captured Slippery and, at first, refused to give him back, eventually returning the animal on July 6th by loading him into the back of a station wagon and driving him back to the Canadian border. 

"They kept him for July 4th," Clarke said. "This is where the drama of the whole thing comes in of course, London wanted him back for the July 1st."

When the Americans drove Slippery across the border, they were surprised by the welcome. They were met by a police escort and thousands of people, who lined the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor to see the sea lion's return. 

When they arrived in London, more than 50,000 people lined Wellington Street to welcome the animal home, about half the city's population at the time and more people, it is said, than were present to see Queen Elizabeth when she visited the city in 1939. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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