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Coins, rocks found in stomachs of Sea Lion Cove animals at Fresno zoo

Ingested coins, rocks endangering critters at Fresno Chaffee Zoo's Sea Lion Cove

Zoo veterinarian Shannon Nodolf talks about procedures to remove coins and rocks from stomachs of a sea lion and a harbor seal.
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Zoo veterinarian Shannon Nodolf talks about procedures to remove coins and rocks from stomachs of a sea lion and a harbor seal.

Some visitors to Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s Sea Lion Cove may be treating the exhibit like a wishing well by tossing in spare change – and sometimes small rocks.

But it’s brought bad luck to a sea lion and harbor seal, in whose tummies the coins and rocks wind up, and who both required endoscopic surgery to remove the debris.

If allowed to remain in their systems, rocks and coins could cause blockages, stomach and intestinal damage and could fatally poison the animal.

“Their stomach acid leeches out heavy metals from the coins and causes toxicity,” said Shannon Nodolf, a zoo veterinarian.

She said Sur, the sea lion, has developed an ulcer from the pressure on her stomach caused by swallowing the rocks and coins, she said.

We think it’s people acting like they’re throwing coins in a wishing well, but there’s no thought about how it affects the animals.

Lyn Myers, general curator for Fresno Chaffee Zoo

It’s believed that exhibit visitors dropped rocks and coins from a viewing area where steel grate vertical fencing is open to the water. It’s an area where coins have been discovered underwater. Much of the exhibit is on a sandy walkway with few rocks, so it’s unclear where the rocks are coming from.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s malicious,” said Lyn Myers, general curator for Fresno Chaffee Zoo. “We think it’s people acting like they’re throwing coins in a wishing well, but there’s no thought about how it affects the animals.”

It was first detected when veterinarians discovered Sur had five broken teeth, Myers said.

Veterinarians were curious about what she was eating and performed an X-ray that revealed a collection of coins and rocks in her stomach, said Myers.

Initially, veterinarians tried to induce vomiting, but it didn’t bring up the debris. That led to the endoscopy procedure.

The procedure involves anesthesia and placing an endoscope equipped with a tiny camera down the throat and into the stomach of the animals. A tiny grabber tool, a net attached to the device, captures coins and rocks but requires several passes to gather up everything.

We didn’t know if she was able to eat, her stomach was so full. We ended up pulling five teeth.

Dr. Shannon Nodolf, veterinarian, Fresno Chaffee Zoo

In the case of Sur, zoo veterinarians enlisted the help of Dr. Stephen O. Davis, a Fresno gastroenterologist, and a second technician. A second procedure will be required because not all the material, which included 1.3 pounds of pebbles, small rocks and a peach pit, was removed from her stomach. The procedure for Sur lasted about 90 minutes.

“We didn’t know if she was able to eat, her stomach was so full,” Nodolf said. “We ended up pulling five teeth.”

Ariel, the harbor seal, also will need a second procedure. Doctors removed 72 cents – two quarters, two nickels, two pennies and a dime – from her stomach.

As preventive measures, zoo officials will place signs at the exhibit to deter visitors from throwing coins and rocks in the Sea Lion Cove pool, and a plexiglass barrier likely will be installed to replace the vertical fencing, Myers said.

It’s also possible a “donation station” could be added to the Sea Lion Cove grounds for those visitors with spare change to give away, she said.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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