The Zoo’s Baby Seal Is Cute and Cuddly, But Don’t Be Fooled

The National Zoo’s seal-breeding program has another gray seal pup success

“No, we don't cuddle the seals,” says the Zoo's Rebecca Sturniolo says. “As cute and cuddly as they are, they are pretty feisty." Jacqueline Conrad/National Zoo
The pup only nurses for three weeks and then she will separate from her mother, Kara, says Sturniolo. Jacqueline Conrad/National Zoo

A new baby seal pup was born at the Smithsonian's National Zoo on January 21, the latest in its successful breeding program for gray seals. It's a girl.

January is a cold, tough month for any baby animal, which is part of the reason why gray seal pups are so large at birth. This new pup was already 37 pounds when she was first weighed on January 24. She also has a thick, warm coat of white fur.

She hasn't been given a name yet, but that will become an important part of her relationship with her handlers.

“All of our seals and sea lions know their names,” says Rebecca Sturniolo, associate curator of the Zoo's American Trail. “Which is really important when it comes to training them.”

Gray seals are highly trainable and in the past were often used for balancing tricks in circus acts. They were nearly extirpated from the wild in U.S. waters, hunted for their pelts or government bounties. They were viewed as pests that competed with fishermen for food and for taking over beaches. With the 1972 passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, gray seals began rebounding as Canadian populations colonized southern habitat. Today, the animals are listed by the IUCN as a species of least concern.

Both of the pup's parents were born in captivity. Her mother, Kara, was born at the National Zoo in 1983 but spent most of her life in a New Jersey aquarium before returning to D.C. Her father, Gunther, was sent from Los Angeles. The pair were recommended for breeding together by scientists who manage a species protection plan that prevents inbreeding or hybridization between subspecies.

This is Gunther and Kara's second pup together, but male gray seals do not play a role in rearing the young. Even the mothers contribute surprisingly little.

“The pup only nurses for three weeks and then she will separate from Kara,” Sturniolo says. “There is no long-term maternal bond.”

Gray seal milk is about 60 percent fat, allowing the pup to pack on weight quickly during those three weeks. After that, she will switch over to the same diet that the other seals at the Zoo enjoy.

“They get a variety of fish,” says Sturniolo. “Herring, capelin, mackerel, butterfish and they also get squid. . . . All the fish we get is sustainably sourced.”

The National Zoo is one of only 12 zoos that exhibit gray seals, according to Sturniolo. “That's one of the reasons why we like being a breeding facility,” she says. “We also have to consider what zoos are available to take them. Our last pup that was born in 2014 just went to the Louisville Zoo. As long as we have space, and a place to send them, we will probably keep breeding them.”

This pup is not on public display yet and isn't ready to be introduced to the rest of the Zoo's small group of seals. Visitors should be able to see her this spring. Meanwhile, the Zoo will provide updates through its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

As adorable as the pup is, neither Kara or Sturniolo will be giving it any seal cuddles.

“No, we don't cuddle the seals,” Sturniolo says. “As cute and cuddly as they are, they are pretty feisty. She sees Kara as a food source. It's not like dogs or sea lions that show affection for their young. That's not how it is with seals. They are much more independent. We're trying to stay pretty much as far away from the pup as we can.”

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