Elderly seal 'Sterling' gets some senior swim therapy

May 17, 2019 - 11:33am

Sterling, a 32-year-old harbor seal, is joined by care staff for special swim sessions

Her name may denote silver, but harbor seal Sterling is Steller Cove's resident "golden girl." The oldest seal in the Oregon Zoo family at 32, Sterling's care team goes to great lengths — and depths — to keep her feeling healthy and fit. Because Sterling is not as active as the younger harbor seals, keepers don wetsuits and get in the pool with her for special swim sessions.

"Swimming with Sterling is a great way to check in with her," said Nicole Nicassio-Hiskey, the zoo's senior marine mammal keeper. "Not only does she enjoy the one-on-one time, but it lets us assess her health and make sure she's feeling good."

Sterling shares her Steller Cove habitat with three other harbor seals: Kaya, who's 4, her mother Atuun, 15, and Tongass, who's 12. Though she enjoys socializing, Sterling seems to prefer the company of her human care team to the other seals, especially when it comes to swim time.

"She makes her way over to us as soon as we get in the pool," Nicassio-Hiskey said. "She especially loves to flip over on her back and show us her belly."

Home to some of the oldest animals on the planet, the Oregon Zoo has earned a stellar reputation for the specialized geriatric care it provides. Zoo veterinarians and keeper staff work together, developing innovative ways to make sure the animals in their care have a great quality of life throughout their golden years — providing special enrichment for the world's oldest orangutan, for example — and many of the zoo's residents live far beyond the median life expectancy for their species.