Como Zoo puts new spark in sea lion show

By Jack O’Connor

Como Zoo’s 67-year-old sea lion show is changing to emphasize educating and entertaining people while keeping the animals safe.

What began as a single sea lion traveling act has transformed into a multi-sea lion act that balances fun for the audience with care for the animal.

Senior zookeeper Allison Jungheim said the current show ensures not only that the sea lions are healthy, but that audiences can enjoy and learn from the show.

“We try to focus on the behaviors that we need to maintain proper care for the animals, but also adding in a little bit of the fun behaviors for the public,” Jungheim recently told the Bugle. “We want to make sure the show is both fun and educational.”

The show was paused for five years as renovations to the sea lion exhibit were delayed by shipping issues, construction problems and the pandemic before returning in 2022.

In the show’s history, there have been seven sea lions with the title of “Sparky,” with Subee currently holding the title. Subee’s co-stars are Poppy and Niko.

The sea lions are trained three times a day using positive reinforcement where correct behaviors are rewarded.

Each show is different, Jungheim said. The shows are catered to the medical needs of the Sparkys.

 “We might be putting in eye drops or eye ointments. We might be brushing their teeth,” Jungheim said. “We may lay them out and have them stay still while we rub them all down and make sure that they don’t have any cuts or abrasions.”

Spinning, waving to the crowd, catching fish and jumping through a hoop are a few of the activities guests can expect to see from the sea lions.

The shift toward a more educational show began in 2001 when the zookeepers took over the show after former director Norm Bing retired.

The previous Sparky the Sea Lion was almost entirely “entertainment behaviors,” Jungheim said. The current show includes some of that. But educating the audience and having the sea lions do things that they do in the wild is now also a part of the show.

“While the old sea lion show had a lot of fun behaviors, it really did not have any kind of real focus on education,” Jungheim said. “It’s not just all fun and blowing a trumpet or something. It’s more natural behaviors that they would actually do in the wild.”

The Sparky the Sea Lion show takes place daily at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. in the KSTP Amphitheater in the Como Harbor. 

Jack O’Connor is a third-year student at the University of Minnesota majoring in journalism and political science. In his free time, Jack enjoys listening to music and hanging out with his cats.

Photo cutline: The “Sparky the Sea Lion” show has been a popular mainstay at the Como Zoo for decades. This photo was taken in 2022. Photo by Como Friends

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