Northern fur seal patient Ziggy Star suffers from a serious neurologic condition called cerebral demyelination. The myelin coating of the neurons in her brain are disrupted and therefore her nervous system does not function properly. Because of this condition, she has poor coordination and visual impairment and it’s not likely she could survive in the wild. The Marine Mammal Center is looking for a permanent home for her in an appropriate zoo or aquarium.
July 24, 2013
Ziggy Star is an adult female northern fur seal that was rescued from Bowling Ball beach in Anchor Bay, CA on April 7, 2013. The Marine Mammal Center volunteers who rescued Ziggy Star found her lying alone on the beach, severely emaciated and close to death.
As soon as she arrived at the Center’s hospital, veterinarians began treating her for severe dehydration by giving her subcutaneous fluids. She was also treated with deworming medications in case parasites were contributing to her emaciation. For the first week she barely moved except to get up and slowly walk to her pool to eat the fish offered to her.
As she began to improve and move around her pen more frequently, the animal care volunteers noticed that there was more going on with Ziggy Star than just dehydration and emaciation. She appeared to have trouble seeing, and she was walking in an uncoordinated manner – a condition known as ataxia.
Ataxia is characterized by a lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movements and implies that there is a dysfunction in the part of the brain that coordinates movement. Over the next several months, veterinarians at the Center ran a series of tests to see if they could determine the cause of Ziggy Star’s clinical signs. In addition to blood tests and an eye exam, Ziggy Star underwent whole body X-rays to search for any evidence of gunshot fragments, which fortunately was not found.
An echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) was also performed to see if Ziggy Star had a cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease that can indicate the presence of Domoic Acid toxicity. As this test was negative, she then underwent an MRI, a more reliable (but more expensive) test, to see if there were changes in her brain consistent with Domoic Acid toxicity.
While the MRI showed that Ziggy Star did not have brain changes consistent with Domoic Acid toxicity, it did reveal that she had a serious neurologic condition called demyelination. The myelin coating of the neurons in her brain are disrupted and therefore her nervous system does not function properly. The clinical signs that Ziggy Star demonstrates due to the cerebral demyelination are similar to what a person with Multiple Sclerosis (which also involves demyelination) might display, including uncoordination and vision defects. Because of this condition, it is very unlikely that she would be able to successfully forage and take care of herself in the wild, and so a search is on for a permanent home in a zoo or aquarium where she can live out her life with the care she needs.
Ziggy Star has repeatedly failed to catch the live fish offered to her. “Live fish tests” are done as a way to check to see if patients are fit to return to the wild.
Photo above by Lorraine Barbosa © The Marine Mammal Center.
During the last few months, Ziggy Star’s body condition has continued to improve, and after gaining 60 lbs. she has now returned to a normal weight. With the care that a zoo or aquarium can provide, Ziggy Star should be able to live out a comfortable life, as her condition does not cause her any pain and she is thriving under our care. We are hopeful that she will become an ambassador for her species and help educate people about fur seals and the need to protect all marine mammals and their habitat.
While we seek a permanent home for her in an aquarium or zoo, we have been trying to learn all we can about what might have caused the demyelination in Ziggy Star’s brain. Although we don’t think there is a cure for her condition, identifying what caused it could be helpful in taking care of her in the future, as well as preventing any possible spread of disease to other animals.
The veterinary staff at the Center has run a series of tests on Ziggy Star, such as collecting cerebral spinal fluid from her spinal canal. They continue to try to identify if there is a protozoal, viral, bacterial or fungal infection, a previous toxic exposure, or perhaps an immune-mediated disease that could be the cause. The source of Ziggy Star’s neurologic condition, however, still remains a mystery.
The good news is that she is doing well on a day-to-day basis. The staff at the Center has begun working with Ziggy Star to get her used to some of the routines that she will encounter at a permanent placement and we all remain hopeful that a great home will soon be found for her.
While we see a number of northern fur seal pups each year, Ziggy Star is a fairly unusual case for the Center as we have only rescued 32 adult females (and one male) in our 38-year history. Of those, only 12 have survived to be released back to the wild. Ziggy Star will be the first to be placed in a facility.
If you would like to help with the cost of Ziggy Star’s extensive treatment and long-term stay at The Marine Mammal Center, you can make a donation in her honor or if you want to Run for the Seals on August 17, join Ziggy Star's Team or just sponsor it!
Learn about northern fur seals
Learn about Domoic Acid toxicity
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