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Gunshot Victim Nezzie’s Final Diagnosis: Cancer

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.

February 5, 2014

We have some sad news to report: Nezzie, a California sea lion admitted to The Marine Mammal Center at the end of October, has died of cancer. The juvenile sea lion arrived at our hospital weak and emaciated with a gunshot wound in his back, but the bad news didn't stop there.

Nezzie in his pool.
© Adam Ratner, The Marine Mammal Center


After several months in our care, the gunshot wound and surrounding infection seemed to be healing well but Nezzie never fully recovered. He was consistently pale and lethargic, and blood tests showed that he had persistent anemia, a deficiency in his red blood cell count that indicated a larger problem. Our medical team used X-rays, ultrasounds and other diagnostic tools in an effort to determine why Nezzie wasn’t improving but the core cause of his ill health remained a mystery until his death.

Nezzie’s necropsy revealed a large amount of fluid around his lungs and an irregular white mass in his chest, leading our veterinary staff to suspect cancer. We sent tissue samples to pathologists at the University of California at Davis to take a closer look, and they confirmed that the mysterious white mass was indeed cancerous, likely a type of lymphoma.

Approximately 17 percent of adult stranded sea lions that die are diagnosed with cancer, but Nezzie may have had a less common form of the disease. The pathologists at UC Davis are running further tests to determine the exact type of cancer found in Nezzie’s tissue sample.

Post-mortem examinations like this help us gain important insights about the illnesses that affect marine mammals and how we can treat them in future patients. Every necropsy is a learning opportunity for our medical team, and samples that we take during these procedures can be used to further marine mammal research studies here at The Marine Mammal Center and around the country. 

The small drain in Nezzie's wound can be seen in the shaved patch in the middle of his back. The drain has been removed now as Nezzie slowly recovers from his gunshot wound.
© Heather Willis, The Marine Mammal Center

December 16, 2013

Nezzie is still with us here at the Center and his gunshot wound is healing well. Drains have been placed in his back several times to take care of the pus that resulted from an infection that was moving through the wound. The drains have been removed now and he appears to be fighting the infection like a trooper.

Nezzie’s blood work is looking better but there are still a few issues that require careful monitoring. We want to make sure his wounds heal completely, then we can prepare him to be released back to the ocean. In the meantime, he is getting healthy herring meals several times a day, getting regular checkups on his health, and benefitting from the care of our dedicated volunteers.

Nezzie is just the latest of many sea lion gunshot victims that have been rescued by The Marine Mammal Center. It is difficult to comprehend the cruelty of shooting a sea lion in the back, but we are gratified by the outpouring of concern from the community of people who love the ocean and marine mammals.

November 12, 2013

We are keeping a close eye on Nezzie, who is slowly recovering from his gunshot wound. The drain that was placed in the wound has been taken out now as the abscess is gradually healing. Nezzie has a healthy appetite, happily scarfing down a fish dinner several times a day. He has a fair amount of energy and we are cautiously optimistic about his recovery.

November 8, 2013

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 admit report, 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 – what was the cause of this abscess? We’ve seen this kind of thing before which led our veterinarians to make an initial working diagnosis that we all don’t like to hear: 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. Based on the initial diagnosis, we immediately began treatment to ease his pain which also allowed us to do a thorough examination to get a more detailed diagnosis.

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. 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. After a few minutes he became very sleepy and eventually he lay down on the pen floor, which was when the veterinarians got to work.

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. It was confirmed, Nezzie had been shot. In Nezzie’s Medical Progress Report, the initial diagnosis is described in graphic detail:

"The 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.” Put simply, the bullet entered the upper back of the sea lion then when it hit a vertebra it changed direction, fracturing a rib, and breaking one of Nezzie's backbones. The bullet finished its journey lodged in the muscles lower down the animal's body (caudal refers to the lower part of an animal, coming from the Latin word for tail).

The report also mentioned “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. He was also given antibiotics to address the infection.

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, but at least in our care, he has a chance. He is one of many sea lions that we have treated for gunshot wounds in recent years. Such shocking cases, push us to raise awareness about this cruel, inhumane – and illegal behavior toward marine mammals.

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. If you do know anything, please report it.

You can help protect sea lions and other marine mammals from these horrific and illegal crimes – report any violations of The Marine Mammal Protection Act to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) 24-hour Enforcement Hotline (1-800-853-1964).


Learn about California sea lions

Read more about Marine Mammal Gunshot Victims

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