September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This will be the last anecdote from Buin Zoo (for a while), but I just couldn’t finish this series without mentioning Domingo.

Domingo is a wild South American Sea lion born on the beach of Santo Domingo in central Chile. He was unlucky enough to be only a year old when El Niño arrived in 1997. This climate pattern occurs every five years across the Pacific Ocean and whenever it hits it leaves the waters of Chile in utter chaos. This time was no different and, thanks to El Niño, the cold Humboldt Current was flooded by a rush of warm water lacking in nutrients. As the fish were forced further out to sea so too were the sea lions.

The problem was that that the younger animals didn’t have the experience or the strength to hunt in the deep, open ocean. Those that didn’t want to risk drowning stayed close to the shore, and began to starve.  Soon, the situation became so bad that the authorities had to step in. Buin Zoo took in five young sea lions at once. The idea was to keep them at the zoo until they had sufficiently recovered their fat stores in order to survive on their own. The plan as always was to return them to the wild so they could resume their lives as normal.

Domingo, however, had other ideas.

He was released back into the sea lion colony where he had been found with the others. All seemed well at first until a few days later one of the locals stumbled into a sea lion in the town square. He was caught surprisingly easily and re-released, but the next day he was found yet again wandering aimlessly around the palm trees. They tried again, but Domingo was having none of it. After further futile attempts at releasing him in the shallows, they tried putting him out into deeper water. They found him the next morning, asleep in someone’s front porch. When Domingo started following people home from the beach, the zoo finally gave up.

The only solution that the team could think of was to take him back to the zoo and make him an enclosure from scratch. Fourteen years on it’s quite clear that Domingo is not going anywhere and the zoo has long ago stopped trying to send him home. He has in fact become one of the zoo’s biggest stars and his ease with humans is legendary. Like the proper diva that he is, he is also the most expensive animal that the zoo looks after.  Domingo needs a minimum of 1,300 kg of fish a month to keep him satisfied. The keepers, however, are very clear that it is worth it. After all, they told me, he wants to stay and we have to respect his decision.