Inspector Blames Filtering Systems : Zoo Disputes Reports of Sea Lion Health Problems

Times Staff Writer

A federal inspector says a faulty filtering system in the San Diego Zoo's sea lion holding tanks contributed to health problems among the trained sea lions last year, but zoo officials on Friday disputed his findings.

Frank Enders, a veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture, suggested in three inspections last fall that problems with the water system in three holding tanks at the Wegeforth Bowl led to eye infections and "slow-to-heal" skin lesions among the 12 sea lions.

But zoo officials said they were aware of no unusual skin problems that could be linked with water quality and said only one sea lion suffered eye infections--a chronic problem for that particular animal.

And while Enders reported that holding tank water was murky, had a strong ammonia smell and was littered with fecal matter, zoo officials insisted that continual maintenance kept the water quality good despite a malfunctioning filter.

"What we have are sea lion pools with faulty valves. We are continuing to work with the contractor, who has promised to fix the valves," said Jeff Jouett, zoo spokesman. The zoo is withholding final payment to the contractor, Maloney Process Inc., of Orange, until the valves are repaired, he said.

Jouett said sea lion keepers often change water and add chlorine in the holding tanks to compensate for the faulty valves. "We do it because of health concerns. We want to keep our sea lions healthy," he said. "The sea lions here are well cared for."

Phil Robinson, the zoo's chief veterinarian, and Larry Clifford, head of sea lion training, flatly disputed Enders' reports that any of the sea lions suffered eye problems due to water quality or any unusual skin lesions, according to Jouett.

"There was nothing out of the ordinary--some hair loss, some skin flaking off. But that occurs in the wild and in any zoo," he said. "There were no slow-to-heal skin lesions affected by the water quality."

In an interview, Enders said he believes water quality now is in compliance with federal regulations "as far as I know. I certainly feel it's enough of a concern that I will be following up closely on the seal pools."

Enders, who is responsible for inspecting all mammal enclosures at the zoo, said he would place the holding tank deficiency on the "top shelf" of problems at the zoo.

Nevertheless, he said he would characterize the problems only as "minor," saying there appears to be no serious health risk. "The zoo is quite responsible in correcting deficiencies. . . . They have a high degree of veterinary care," the inspector said.

Enders and zoo officials criticized a San Diego Tribune report that said, "Sea lions sometimes dive into dry pools emptied by the system's faulty valve." The source of information was reportedly Enders. In fact, Enders and Jouett said, they were aware of only one such instance--and the sea lion was unhurt.

Jouett said about 10 inches of water remained in the pool, which is about 5 feet deep.

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