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Harpo: the Charismatic Raspberry-blowing Sea Lion

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Animal Updates | Mammals | Volunteering

Friday, August 16, 2013


As I was leaving the exhibit after a recent pinniped presentation a little kid excitedly ran up to me just say “I like your seal the best!” The “seal” I was working with that day was Harpo the Sea Lion. This charismatic raspberry-blowing member of the species Zalophus californianus had made another fan!

What makes Harpo the favorite of the kids watching the Seal and Sea Lion Show is his signature “raspberry” behavior. In this behavior the trainer sends Harpo up to the upper glass viewing area. Harpo is then asked to target on the glass inches from the children’s faces and then to stick his tongue out at them, to the delight of the youngsters. Sometimes the kids themselves initiate the behavior by sticking their tongues out at the sea lion first. Harpo has been trained to mimic raspberry blowing by the trainers so when he sees the kids doing it to him behind the glass he sometime sticks his tongue out right back at them.

Harpo may not be the biggest animal in the exhibit or the smartest but he is the most charismatic. He is the Sea Lion that guest are most likely going to see in the pinniped viewing tunnel next to the glass. One morning I watched a little kid sitting in the tunnel with her back to the glass playing on an iPad. Right behind her was Harpo floating upside down looking over her shoulder watching her play her game. “He likes Angry Birds”, the kid said to me as I walked by. That’s just Harpo being Harpo. Harpo loves to people watch in the tunnel which in turn allows guest to get a good look at him.

I’ve always enjoyed my sessions with Harpo although sometimes to me he’s seems to be channeling his namesake Harpo Marx. He can be quite spontaneous at times. One of the fun behaviors I like doing with him is to play Frisbee catch. Just like a retriever Harpo will catch a Frisbee when its thrown even when he leaps vertically out of the water straight up into the air. During one leap he surprised me by not only catching the Frisbee when several feet in the air but also accurately flipping the disk back to me, bopping me in the head, before he fell gracefully back into the water. No wonder kids love him!

Harpo: the Charismatic Raspberry-blowing Sea Lion
Harpo doing a pillar behavior during a pinniped show.  | Hugh Ryono
Harpo: the Charismatic Raspberry-blowing Sea Lion
Harpo during a quiet moment.  | Hugh Ryono
Harpo: the Charismatic Raspberry-blowing Sea Lion
Harpo has even been known to stick his tongue out during a leap. Here mammalogist Jeff gets a midair raspberry from Harpo.  | Hugh Ryono

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