Zoo mourns Julius, oldest male Steller sea lion in U.S.

February 2, 2014 - 4:24pm

Keepers recall 26-year-old marine mammal's tough independence

Julius, a Steller sea lion at the Oregon Zoo known for his tough independence, was humanely euthanized Sunday following a decline due to complications related to his advanced age, officials said.

Julius was born July 21, 1987, and came to Portland from Connecticut's Mystic Aquarium in 2000, when the zoo opened its Steller Cove marine life habitat. At 26, he was the oldest male Steller sea lion in any U.S. zoo or aquarium — a distinction now held by his Oregon Zoo companion, Gus, also 26. In the wild, male sea lions seldom live beyond their teens.

"Julius was an amazing, bold and confident animal," said Amy Cutting, curator of the zoo's North America section. "He learned quickly, and always seemed ready to move on to the next thing. We will remember him that way — with energy, confidence and bravado."

"We knew he wouldn't be with us forever, but it's still hard to accept," said Nicole Nicassio-Hiskey, the zoo's senior marine life keeper, who had worked with Julius for more than 12 years. "He was such a fun animal to work with. He always kept you on your toes."

Keepers say Julius — named for the month of his birth — had a "regal, almost arrogant" bearing, similar to that of his namesake, Julius Caesar, but nonetheless formed close bonds with both Gus and zoo staff.

"He was the oldest male Steller sea lion in the country, possibly in the world," Nicassio-Hiskey said. "He was very independent and definitely in charge. He was the leader. He always got the food first."

"Gus will have a chance to get the ice treats now," added keeper Philip Fensterer, who worked with Julius since 2000 and helped introduce him to Portlanders during the Steller Cove opening.

In 2012, Julius and Gus were included in an Oregonian article about elderly Oregon Zoo inhabitants that highlighted ways keepers and veterinary staff care for animals approaching the end of life.

Animal-care staff had been monitoring and treating Julius closely for some time for a variety of age-related ailments including macular degeneration in both his eyes and arthritis. By Sunday though, his condition had deteriorated and, not wanting him to suffer, zoo staff made the difficult decision to euthanize him.

"When you care for an animal every day, for years, you forge a bond that is impossible to describe," Cutting said. "I am so proud of the marine life keepers — they really kept it together today to do the right thing for Julius, to make sure he wasn't suffering. They are professionals. But I know they will all go home tonight and fall apart. He was a very special animal that they will never forget."