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Ziggy Star - fur seal with a neurologic condition

Northern fur seal Ziggy Star suffers from a neurologic condition that affects her coordination and ability to process images. She is otherwise healthy, but can't survive in the wild and will need human care for the rest of her life.

Mar 31, 2014

Ziggy Star, a northern fur seal who was a patient at the Center for almost a year, arrived safely at her new home at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. She has come a long way since she was found collapsed on a Mendocino beach, severely emaciated and barely alive. We were able to give her the care she needed until she could travel to her new home, where she is now thriving despite the neurological condition that prevents her from surviving in the wild. Thank you to everyone who supported Ziggy Star on her journey home!

Watch a video of Ziggy Star and her journey to Mystic Aquarium:

Mar 10, 2014

Ziggy Star will soon be on her way to the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, thanks to people like you who helped us raise the money to cover her transportation costs. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to all of you who helped us reach this important goal!

Mar 3, 2014

Ziggy Star
© Adam Ratner - The Marine Mammal Center

In the next few weeks, our beloved fur seal patient, Ziggy Star, will travel to her new home at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. But just how do you transport a seal over 3,000 miles?

Our Stranding Manager, Shelbi Stoudt, explains the process. "Non-releasable rehabilitated marine mammals are typically transported cross-country to their new homes by FedEx cargo planes. The animal is put in a specially made crate and driven to the airport, usually in the middle of the night as it is quieter and cooler for the animal. Once at the airport, the crate is loaded and secured closest to the front. Two trained human handlers sit in the jump seats behind the flight crew cabin in order to have access to the animal if needed. The human handlers travel and stay with the animal at all times." 

As the final preparations get underway, The Marine Mammal Center and Mystic Aquarium have teamed up to pay for Ziggy's special transportation needs.

Ziggy Star has become an unforgettable patient at the Center. During her time here, she's befriended numerous pen-mates, and become a favorite of visitors, volunteers and staff alike. I think you'll agree, she has stolen all of our hearts - you even voted her Patient of the Year! She will be missed here in California, but we know that she will have a full life at her new home in Connecticut. 

Feb 4, 2014

You voted Ziggy Star your Patient of the Year 2013!


Ziggy Star has been at the Center since April 2013, which is a long time compared to most of our patients. She is a mature adult northern fur seal who was found collapsed on a beach on the Mendocino coast, severely emaciated and barely alive. She was rescued and brought to the Center's hospital where our veterinary team diagnosed her with a serious neurologic condition called cerebral demyelination.

“This condition affects her coordination and impairs her ability to process images, but she is otherwise healthy. However, she cannot survive in the wild." commented Dr. Shawn Johnson, Director of Veterinary Science at the Center. "She will require assistance for the rest of her life so will be going to live at the accredited Mystic Aquarium where, as a threatened and protected species, she will serve as an educational ambassador for her species."

Ziggy is doing really well and we are now making preparations to transport her to her new home at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. We'll keep you posted on her transfer date!

Read on to learn about Ziggy's full rescue and rehabilitation story.

July 24, 2013

After three months of care at the Center’s hospital, Ziggy Star has gained nearly 60 lbs and looks remarkably better than she did when she was rescued (see inset photo).
© The Marine Mammal Center

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 part of a series of diagnostic tests, Ziggy Star was given full body x-rays to rule out any foreign bodies, such as gunshot fragments. Fortunately, none were found and her x-rays all appeared normal. Photo by Christina Kho © The Marine Mammal Center

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.

Ziggy Star’s vital signs are monitored while she has an echocardiogram to help rule out Domoic Acid toxicity. Photo by Christina Kho © The Marine Mammal Center.

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 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 a new home is being found for Ziggy Star (left), she has been sharing a pen with some young California sea lions. She has had no problem letting them know who is boss! Photo by Ingrid Overgard © The Marine Mammal Center.

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.

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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.


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