Rescued sea lions to entertain audiences at Altamont Fair

— Photo from Sea Lion Splash

Three sea lions play with hoop rings as part of the Sea Lion Splash show, put on by the Texas-based company of the same name.

ALTAMONT — For thirty years, Jimmy Earhart has been working with rescued sea lions, teaching them tricks and, most importantly, making sure they’re cared for, as each has been deemed by the federal government as unreleasable to the wild.
“A lot of them have eye issues from human involvement — pollution,” Earhart told The Enterprise this week. “Some of them, their moms had abandoned them and they never learned to fish correctly and things like that … We have one right now that has a huge shark bite in her, which you can still see, even with the hairs growing over it.”

Earhart said that the government takes in wild sea lions for rehabilitation and tags them when they’re ready to be released; if they’re picked up enough times after that, the government sends them to facilities like Earhart’s, where, if they’re performance-capable, they begin a new life as show-lions and are taken care of for the remainder of their lives. 

“We’re one of a handful of facilities that are allowed to receive them …,” he said. “You agree to [give them] a forever home. Most of the time you don’t know what you’re going to get. You just agree to it.”

For Earhart, a lifelong animal trainer who came from the circus world, that challenge of figuring out what each animal is capable of and what its limits are is fun — especially because sea lions are brilliant, he said, and continue to surprise him after all this time. 

The 25-minute show features two different species of sea lion, California and South American, showing off waves, claps, and the ability to walk on land. The intelligence that allows them to do these things, Earhart said, also lets them be mischievous or stubborn about it, should they choose to be. 

For instance, the sea lions, feeling lazy, might decide to clap when Earthart or another trainer calls for a wave, he said, because when they wave they can’t rest their bellies against their chairs, which they can do when they clap. So, the technically easier trick gets put aside for what the animals feel is convenient at that moment. 

To keep them engaged and motivated, Earhart regularly switches up the routines, which he says helps stimulate their brains. 

“They definitely like the stimulation of working and performing …,” he said. “They’re constantly testing the waters and testing the boundaries and seeing what they can get away with, or how they can get away with not doing something — then they’ll surprise you and come up with a better way of doing something that’s more natural for them.”

Earhart compared it to working with young kids, who themselves are growing into their own personalities and figuring out the world around them as caretakers try to provide the best environment and the right amount of support. 

Some sea lions he cares for don’t perform at all because of disabilities. Earhart recently got one that’s almost totally blind. Eye treatments are improving her sight somewhat, but it’s not clear that she’ll ever reach a point where she can join the show. 

“If not, she’ll just live out the rest of her life with us and the rest of the sea lions,” he said. “And that’s OK too.” 

In lieu of performing, that sea lion has so far found a role as an animal ambassador, making appearances at schools where Earhart teaches kids about the harms that fall on wildlife as a result of human activities. 

All of this is done under the watchful eye of the United States Department of Agriculture, which controls the licensing for companies like Earhart’s. Despite his experience and carefulness, Earhart has still fallen afoul of the ever-moving regulatory line. 

In April of last year, the USDA found six noncritical violations at the Sea Lion Splash facility, including having expired eye-drops on site, not providing enough space for the sea lions, and failing to correctly check the water, all of which were corrected within the required time frame. 

Nevertheless, a summary of the violations is one of the top search results whenever someone punches the company name into Google, and, unfortunately for Earhart, another company that has a different corporate name but has titled its show “Sea Lion Splash” has a number of violations that can easily be thought to belong to Earhart’s company. 

“I should have fought the inspection,” Earhart said, explaining that, with the space issue, it was a rule that had changed without his knowledge.

“For 30 years, the sizes [of the animals’ space] hadn’t changed …,” he said. “We’ve always been able to use our total combined areas — our indoor pool, our outdoor bowls, and our dry resting area all combined.” 

The rule changed so that each area got its own requirement, resulting in three unique violations, according to the inspection report. As for the expired eye drops, Earhart said that they were on site but not being used. 

“We buy several eye drops [at a time] and they go bad,” he said.

The water issue came not from the fact that the water wasn’t being tested, but that the testing tool wasn’t being used according to the manufacturers’ guidelines, according to the report. 

Aside from those, the company has had very few other violations over the last five years, going by the USDA’s inspection log, and none that were critical or left uncorrected. 

“We’re not perfect,” Earhart said. “But I try really, really hard. We have a lot of sea lions and a lot of humans doing our best.”


Sea Lion Splash will perform at The Altamont Fair at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (Aug. 16 to 20). The show is free with admission to the fair, but audience photos with the sea lions following the show will carry a charge. 

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