One of El Paso's most popular zoo animals, Sunny the sea lion, died Sunday night following age-related medical issues that kept him sidelined for two weeks.
El Paso Zoo officials who made the announcement Monday afternoon said Sunny, a 26-year-old California sea lion,
died in a holding pool as he was being closely monitored by zookeepers.
About two weeks ago, officials announced Sunny would not be making any public presentations because he fell ill. He was placed in a "behind the scenes pool" that gave the zoo's medical team easier access to care for him, officials said.
"It is a sad day here for all staff at the zoo," said zoo director Steve Marshall. "Sunny was the face of the zoo, a true superstar. The El Paso Zoo was blessed to have an iconic animal like Sunny. This is a great loss for us all and he will be missed dearly."
Sunny was born at the zoo on June 12, 1986, and quickly became one of the zoo's most popular attractions. His father, Sammy, died in 1997.
efforts to improve Sunny's habitat began after officials with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association said the animal suffered eye problems because of the direct desert sun, and called the moats around Sunny's exhibit unsightly.
Following the release of the association's critique, zoo workers immediately began building a shade canopy over Sunny's open-air freshwater pool. In 2004, Sunny was moved to a new $3.3 million home, complete with a much larger saltwater pool that holds 90,000
gallons of water and is 20 feet deep.
During Sunny's last days, zookeepers gave him extra attention, said zoo area supervisor Amanda Leverett.
"We would sit with him and massage his back with the water hose, he really loved that. We are really going to miss him," Leverett said.
Zookeepers tried to get Sunny to eat to keep his strength up as he battled his age-related illness. His companion, Sushi, also made daily visits.
"We spend more time with the animals than our own families. The bond we build with them is very important. It's an unbreakable bond," said senior zookeeper Billie York. "Sushi and zoo staff had the opportunity to say goodbye to Sunny this morning."
Officials said the sea lion exhibit will remain open but presentations have been canceled through today. They will resume Wednesday at 10:50 a.m. and 2:50 p.m. daily.
Fans of Sunny are invited to drop off remembrances at the zoo's front gate or at the sea lion exhibit. Photos may also be shared on the zoo's Facebook page, facebook.com/elpasozoo.
Memorial donations may also be made to the El Paso Zoological Society by calling 532-8156 or by stopping by their office at the zoo. Zoo staff are also looking into the possibility of hosting a memorial for Sunny.
Sushi, a 14-year-old female, is the zoo's remaining sea lion. Female Cleo died at age 25 in January, while her twin, Cocoa, died in 2010.
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