EL PASO, Texas - Sunny the sea lion, one of the most beloved animals at the El Paso Zoo, died overnight.
Sunny, 26, died in a behind the scenes pool where he was being closely monitored by keepers and left off-exhibit because he was not feeling well.
California sea lions are thought to live 15-25 years.
Sunny was born at the El Paso Zoo on June 12, 1986 and has since touched the lives of thousands of El Paso community members and its visitors.
Sunny began teaching visitors about ocean conservation during sea lion presentations more than 15 years ago and has since served as an ambassador of conservation. According to zoo officials, Sunny was the first sea lion at any zoo to teach visitors about recycling by demonstrating how to put the correct items in a recycling bin.
Sunny was also the trainer to new sea lion trainers because he was so gentle and easy to work with. He was an animal that gave his keepers and visitors a personal experience- one that they may not get with other animals at the zoo.
"We would sit with him and massage his back with the water hose, he really loved that. We are really going to miss him," said Area Supervisor Amanda Leverett.
Keepers also ensured that Sunny was under constant expert care, keeping him comfortable at all times while trying to stimulate him to eat. "We spend more time with the animals than our own families. The bond we build with them is very important. It's an unbreakable bond," said Senior Zoo Keeper Billie York. Sushi, Sunny's exhibit companion had the chance to visit him daily to check up on him. Sushi and zoo staff had the opportunity to say good bye to Sunny this morning.
"It is a sad day here for all staff at the zoo. Sunny was the face of the zoo- a true super star. The El Paso Zoo was blessed to have an iconic animal like Sunny. This is a great loss for us all and he will be missed dearly," said Zoo Director Steve Marshall.
The sea lion exhibit will remain open. Sea lion presentations resume on Tuesday, November 27 at their regular time. Guests will continue to see Sushi, the zoo's 14-year-old sea lion, during daily presentations at 10:50 a.m. and 2:50 p.m.
Anyone wishing to drop off a remembrance for Sunny can do so by dropping it off at the zoo's front gate or by dropping it off at the Sea lion exhibit during their zoo visit. The community is also being encouraged to share their photos with Sunny or a nice memory of him on the zoo's facebook page at facebook.com/elpasozoo.
Zoo staff is currently investigating the possibility of a meaningful remembrance for Sunny. Anyone wishing to contribute to his memory can make a monetary donation to the El Paso Zoological Society by calling 532-8156 or by stopping by their office at the zoo.
Cocoa, 24, another of the El Paso Zoo's sea lions died in May 2010.
Cocoa was born at Six Flags Marine World California and was the twin sister of Cleo, one of the other sea lions at the El Paso Zoo. The pair joined Sushi to be Sunny's companions in March of 2004.
Cocoa had chronic health problems related to old age including cataracts and arthritis in her back. Four weeks ago her zoo keepers reported that Cocoa had not been eating well. Along with veterinarian and keeper staff she received the best possible care and treatment over the next weeks and had recently received a complete physical exam, but staff had been unable to determine why she hadn't been eating.