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Marine Mama

By JEANETTE HURT

July 2014

The Oceans of Fun Seal and Sea Lion Show at the Milwaukee County Zoo is an outgrowth of Shelley Ballmann’s love for animals.

When Shelley Ballmann was growing up in Aurora, Ill., she rescued squirrels, raccoons and lizards, and nursed baby birds back to health. Her neighbors knew she was the one to contact if a gosling flock was missing its parents. "I was one of those kids who saved every animal I came across," Ballmann says.

She also loved going to the Brookfield Zoo, and absolutely adored the dolphin show. Every chance she got, she’d hang out and talk with the trainers. One of those trainers, in fact, steered her to Moorpark College in California, where she majored in exotic animal training and management, and minored in biology and psychology. When she graduated she worked at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and at Zoovet Productions, which contracted dolphin and sea lion shows throughout the United States.

Today, Ballmann, 50, is one of the foremost sea lion and seal experts in the country. She owns Oceans of Fun, which provides seal and sea lion programs at the Milwaukee County Zoo and in Hershey Park, Pa.

"I love what I do as much today as I did 25 years ago," Ballmann says. She began Oceans of Fun in 1991 with three animals; today there are 12 animals and 10 employees.

Oceans of Fun also runs one of the most successful sea lion breeding programs in the United States. "Our animals always come first in everything we do, and we are dedicated to conservation," Ballmann says. "These animals are not pets, they are ambassadors."

Connecting with animals is key, she says, for people becoming more dedicated to conservation and helping clean up the environment for marine mammal survival. "As soon as people are able to touch a dolphin, a connection is made," Ballmann says.

But it’s not just about making connections with visitors. Ballmann and her staff spend part of every winter in Punta, San Juan, to tag and study fur seal pups in South America. And last November, Ballmann was summoned to California to help rescue Nalu, a stranded sea lion pup. Nalu, who is believed to have been born sometime in June 2013, was stranded along the Santa Barbara coast in September. The National Marine Fisheries estimate about 1,000 pups were stranded last year; most of them were rehabilitated and released back in the wild. But Nalu, who was still a nursing pup, could not be released, and he required 24-hour care and supervision.

He’s now doing quite well as part of the Oceans of Fun family. He joins Talise, who was born last April to first-time mom Sonoma and dad Slick, and Colby, who was born to mom Makaia in 2012. "It’s going to be a summer of pup training," Ballmann says.

 


This story ran in the July 2014 issue of: