A Secret Kept for Conservation
Seals and sea lions were a big part of the San Diego Zoo’s early history. They were readily available and much sought-after species that Dr. Harry and Belle Benchley could trade with other zoos to build the collection, and they were lively animals full of personality that visitors loved at the San Diego Zoo as well. With the help of his friend Captain Allan Hancock and his ship the Valero II, Dr. Harry made many collecting trips up and down the California and Mexico coastline.
On one of these expeditions, he encountered a fisherman who told him of an extraordinary find: a group of Guadalupe fur seals in a little-known, secluded cove. Unlike the local sea lions and elephant seals, this pinniped species was not plentiful—it had been hunted relentlessly over the years for its thick fur, decimating its population to the point that it was thought to be extinct. Dr. Harry’s wasn’t able to see the seals himself at the time, but in 1928, that fisherman arrived in San Diego with two males. The find caused a sensation in marine, zoo, and aquarium circles and was reported in newspapers across the country. Dr. Harry’s hope was to acquire females and start a breeding group at the San Diego Zoo to increase the population of this nearly extinct species. However, to his disappointment, that never came to pass.
The two male seals lived at the Zoo for many years, however—and for years, Dr. Harry was hounded to share the location of where they had been discovered. He never told anyone, though, knowing how easily the remaining animals could be wiped out if the secret were revealed. In a sense, this could be considered the San Diego Zoo’s first conservation “project”—even though Dr. Harry wasn’t able to breed the species to increase the population, he did protect what remained from further harm. No more of these seals were seen until 1954, when they were protected by law in Mexico and the U.S. Today, Guadalupe Island is a designated pinniped sanctuary, and with a population of about 10,000, the Guadalupe fur seal is no longer on the endangered species list.