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March 1, 2024

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Why Tacoma’s aquarium keeps amassing more walruses

Large mammals specialize in loud, varied vocalizations

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TACOMA — It is a good thing Old MacDonald did not have a walrus on his farm. Because there is no onomatopoeia that could distill the noises this animal makes.

Here are the sounds produced by two juvenile walruses at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma in just 20 minutes: horselike snorting, clicking, a clunking sound that sounds like a fork in a garbage disposal, raspberry blowing, slurping, a deep vibration, a baritone generic “AHHH” sound and a foghorn.

Since the 1980s, Point Defiance has been one of the only American facilities where you can hear this bizarre cacophony of vocalizations. Right now, it is also the only place you can view these animals in a not-for-profit, government-run facility. Just 11 other walruses live in captivity, at SeaWorld San Diego and SeaWorld Orlando.

Point Defiance’s resident walruses Balzak (pronounced Belzik) and Lakina arrived at the facility a year ago from Quebec, and spend their days in filtered water from the Puget Sound.

While walruses are not yet endangered, they are a good animal for showcasing the effects of climate change, said Malia Somerville, the director of Point Defiance’s zoological department. In the wild, they sprawl out on sheets of ice to rest — ice that is fast melting as the Earth’s temperatures rise. The zoo also has other animals affected by climate change, including polar bears, arctic foxes and the largest population of red wolves of any zoo in the United States.

It doesn’t take that much time around them or their keepers to understand why they’re not the most sought-after animal for zoos.

“They’re very large and destructive,” said Maggie Santangelo, a staff biologist at Point Defiance.

Over the course of five daily feedings, the zoo gives its walruses a combined 150 pounds of restaurant-grade seafood. They spend two-thirds of their time underwater, where they ram their faces into various nooks and crannies to suck up and break clams and other invertebrates, behaviors that require a very durable habitat. At their top size, male walruses can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, almost as much as a Cadillac Escalade.

Their large tusks also present a dental liability. If they crack, bacteria can invade, causing an infection. The zoo outfits each tusk with a metal crown as a preventive measure.

Balzak, a 7-year-old male walrus, weighs in at just half of the weight he might reach someday — somewhat unbelievably. When he waddled out of the water during a recent feeding, it took just a handful of steps before Santangelo was backed up against the wall of the enclosure. Balzak’s bloodshot, bulging eyes were locked on every movement of her hand as she took him through various activities designed to check his health and attitude.

Though intimidating, in body shape and demeanor, walruses resemble their close relatives, seals. They are extremely playful and bond with their trainers. Like house pets, they tend to gravitate toward the toys you least expect them to.

Even among an array of puzzle feeders, Lakina has become obsessed with a garbage can that she places on her head and sleeps with at night.

Not every trainer feels comfortable getting into the enclosure. But Santangelo and her colleague Sheriden Ploof, the zoo’s marine mammals curator, interact with the walruses like they’re Labradors.

“Over,” Santangelo says to Balzak cheerily, moving her arm in a circle. Balzak goes belly up, flippers limp.

“Good job, bubba!”

She pushes around on various parts of his abdomen. He lets out a foghorn sound before he’s told to turn back over.

When their buckets of food are empty, the walruses splash around and bark with impatience as the trainers ready their puzzle feeders, or dessert. On the menu today: frozen clams, hidden in a maze of large plastic pieces.

They are meant to inspire the walruses’ masterful foraging abilities. As the icy clams melt, the tray will sink to the bottom of the pool, and they will have to suction the food out. They can also try to break off the plastic pieces with force to get entry to the clams.

Lakina, also 7, gets right to work as the trays are set down, effortlessly dragging it into the water and holding it while floating on her back.

“OK, so, these are actually mostly for her,” Santangelo laughs. Balzak is less engaged, letting Lakina do the work of the puzzle.

Eventually, the trainers would like to teach the animals how to make more use of their whiskers, said Ploof. Walruses can move each of them individually, using them to feel out food.

All of the walruses living in American captivity were either rescued or born at zoos, said Somerville. E.T., who resided at the zoo until his death in 2015, was brought in as an orphaned calf from the wild.

A consortium of zoos, of which Point Defiance is a member, decides collectively where the walruses should be housed at a given time, a United Nations of sorts for walruses.

Each animal has a distinct personality, the trainers say. Lakina and Balzak are much more energetic and excited to be with trainers, but they can be a bit shy. The zoo had to close down underwater walrus viewing because the presence of onlookers seemed to be agitating the animals.

Most of the time, walruses will stay at the zoo until they’re of breeding age, then move to another place that has had better breeding success, said Ploof. The aquarium has not been able to breed walruses successfully before. Lakina and Balzak are still young — most walruses reach sexual maturity when they are 10 to 15 years old.

They should be sticking around for a while.

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