It took a few months to treat a blind sea lion found injured on a Southern California Beach. It took two years to find the Big Guy a home.
The 700-plus-pound sea lion will be flown FedEx from Los Angeles to Hogle Zoo in Utah on May 3.
A weekend truck move was scuttled Friday when zoo officials determined that crates they'd planned to use for the trip were too big for the truck, said Erica Hansen, community relations coordinator at the 81-year-old zoo.
Big Guy, a partially blind female companion and a third sea lion from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito will share an $18 million habitat called Rocky Shores with other sea creatures, bears and bald eagles.
Big Guy has been taking up room needed for other animals, but caretakers repeatedly put off euthanasia as they searched for a home. Big Guy is gentle and graceful, likes people and animals and deserved a home, said David Bard, director of the Marine Mammal Care Center in Pedro, 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
So watching him leave is bittersweet, he said.
"Our mission is to treat and release as many animals as we can. We are not equipped for long-term housing. Euthanasia is a reality at our facility for animals that can't be placed or released. But we were really committed to giving him a good home because he was such a good placement candidate," Bard said.
Big Guy's fans weren't limited to staff and volunteers at the center. The public rallied around him too. Some of the animal's $100-a-day food bill was paid by donors who made it clear the money was to be used to feed Big Guy, Bard said.
Big Guy was found on the beach in Santa Monica on Feb. 6, 2010, with wounded eyes and cuts on his mouth. No one knows if he was in a fight with another animal or attacked by a human. He weighed about 450 pounds back then.
Because he can't see to find food, returning him to the ocean was not an option.
As an adult around 5 years old, Big Guy will need a home for 15 or 20 years, Bard said.
Workers helped Big Guy with some basic voice commands during his stay at the center and he's used to being hand fed, so he should thrive in Utah, Bard said.
"All you needed to do was stand at the fence and watch him hurl himself out of the water and onto the deck. The grace with which he moved 700 pounds around was awe-inspiring," he said, as was his willingness to share the pool with other injured animals.
One of those other animals is a year-old female who was nicknamed Little One because she is so much smaller than her poolmate.
Big Guy will probably keep his name, but Little One will probably get a new one, Hansen said.
Big Guy and Little One are scheduled to leave on a FedEx plane out of Los Angeles on May 3, accompanied by two zookeepers, Hansen said.
They will stop in Oakland to pick up the third sea lion and then head for Salt Lake City.
Their new home is called Rocky Shores, a state-of-the-art, mixed species exhibit designed to mimic the Northwest coastline, Hansen said.
There is a 14-year-old polar bear from the Cincinnati Zoo, three grizzly bears from Buffalo, N.Y., two otters from the Midwest, three seals from the Los Angeles Zoo, and some bald eagles, rescued because they can't fly.
The grizzly bears include two sisters and a brother. In August 2010, their mother killed a man and injured two people when she mauled them at a campground outside Yellowstone National Park. She was euthanized but the cubs were placed in foster care, first in Montana, then in Buffalo.
All of the animals will be quarantined for 30 days ahead of the June 1 opening of Rocky Shores.
Hogle broke ground in the fall of 2010, long after Big Guy's wounds had healed. The pool and people alone make it worth the wait.
He's be sharing a 175,000-gallon salt water pool with his fellow pinnipeds. And then there are the visitors.
The zoo had a million of them last year and expects another million this year.