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Diagnosis for Nezzie the Sea Lion: Gunshot

Nezzie is a juvenile male California sea lion that was rescued by the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center and transferred to The Marine Mammal Center for rehabilitation at the end of October. He was found on a beach at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara County, weak and emaciated.

November 7, 2013

Nezzie's Wound
While Nezzie is sedated in preparation for his X-rays, a veterinarian examines what turned out to be a gunshot wound in the middle of his back.
© The Marine Mammal Center


In Nezzie's Admissions Physical Examination, his mobility was described as “alert but not active.” And his behavior was described as “depressed.” But what really stood out was a single round abscess in the middle of his back that was oozing a stream of pus. The initial working diagnosis: gunshot.

Nezzie weighed 135 pounds when he checked in at the Center, which is very underweight for a sea lion estimated to be about four to five years old. We began treatment to ease his pain and allow us to get a thorough examination that would provide a more detailed diagnosis. His wound was washed and he was given antibiotics to address his infection.

Nezzie Waits for X-rays
Nezzie watches curiously while preparations are underway for his X-rays
© The Marine Mammal Center


With our X-ray machine on the blink, our partners at the San Francisco Zoo paid us a visit to help out. Nezzie underwent a series of X-rays to verify the diagnosis of gunshot. Veterinary Staff from the Zoo brought their portable X-ray machine, so the procedure could be carried out right outside Nezzie’s pen, sparing him the additional stress of having to be moved. First he was given a sedative injection, then given a few minutes to become very sleepy. Soon he lay down on the pen floor and the veterinarians got to work.

Nezzie is prepped for his X-rays
A sedated Nezzie is prepped for his X-rays.
© The Marine Mammal Center

The portable X-ray machine has an imaging plate which is laid down on the ground and connected to a PC. The anesthetized animal is place on top of the plate and a handheld device projects x-rays toward the animal. The images are digitized and can be viewed immediately on the computer.

The results were very disturbing. In Nezzie’s Medical Progress Report, the initial diagnosis is described in graphic detail:

“Bullet appears to have entered dorsally hit and fractured one rib and then ricocheted off before becoming lodged in the epaxial muscles caudal to the entry wound.” It also reported “purulent material draining.” In layman’s terms, this means that pus was coming out of the wound, a sign of infection.

Upon closer examination, it was found that the bullet fractured the vertebrae, dislocating one rib in the process. The wound was infected and the infection was moving into the body of the vertebrae. After the procedure, Nezzie's wound was cleaned and flushed, and a drain was placed inside the wound to allow it to continue to drain.

The bullet has yet to be removed from Nezzie, a procedure that will be complicated by the infection. The Center’s veterinarians estimate that he had probably been suffering with this wound for as long as two weeks. This weakened him, affecting his ability to hunt for food and causing considerable weight loss.

It is too early to state a realistic prognosis for Nezzie. He is one more of the many sea lions that have been treated for gunshot wounds by the Center in recent years. Our efforts go beyond rehabilitation however; we are also striving to raise awareness about this cruel and inhumane – and illegal - behavior toward marine mammals.

Nezzie gets his X-rays
Veterinary staff X-ray Nezzie using a portable X-ray machine generously on loan from the San Francisco Zoo.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and harassing, injuring, or killing them is subject to fines up to $10,000. Enforcement is difficult and often requires a direct witness to the crime. Even if Nezzie’s bullet can be extracted, it would be a challenge to match it with a specific gun, unless there was a firm suspect in custody. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries has a 24-hour Enforcement Hotline (1-800-853-1964), where violations can be reported.


Learn about California sea lions

Read more about Marine Mammal Gunshot Victims

Find out how you can Take Action!


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