Sea Lion Keeper Reflects on Her Inspiration

By: Heather Crane

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. – Jacques Yves Cousteau

It was August and I was approaching my 13th birthday. I had never seen or experienced the ocean before. As I sat in the back of my mother’s blue Toyota Camry sedan, I wondered what it might feel like to see, smell, and hear— to experience the ocean for my first time. As we drove from Oklahoma on a two-week road trip, I passed the time looking at a National Geographic map. As we neared the Oregon coast, I followed the routes of the highway with my finger. This activity didn’t seem significant at the time, but a pinpoint on the map was about to change my life forever. I remember the text being so small I could barely read it. As I looked a little closer I read aloud “Sea Lion Caves.” I hardly knew what a sea lion was, hardly knew what to expect, but I knew I had to go. My mom and my stepfather, Lee, told me that if I could help navigate using the map, we could take the detour to visit. So, I figured it out and we were on our way!

I remember walking down the long sidewalk, hoping I might catch sight of a whale like the signs indicated. I didn’t see one, but the anticipation as I walked to the elevator entrance was exciting enough. I took the ride down the elevator, and as I meandered through the cave, I felt my excitement building. There, at the end of the path, I could see sunlight shining through and could hear the sound of waves crashing into a rocky wall. And then I heard it: the sound of a colony of sea lions. All that separated me from these giant and curious creatures was some old chain link to protect them from us and us from falling. As I watched, it felt like time stopped. All that mattered to me was taking in every precious moment. Even as a kid, I knew this experience was special. I found treasure in the Sea Lion Caves that day. I watched the sea lions exhibit their natural behavior and as I did, I was overcome with true and pure joy. I could think of nothing that made me any happier in all of my 13 years. Eventually, I had to leave, but that experience made its way deep into my heart and forever changed who I was and who I would become. It cast an eternal spell of wonder. At the time, I already wanted to be a veterinarian. But after seeing sea lions, I knew they were important to me so I thought I might grow up to be a sea lion veterinarian.

When it came time for college I studied pre-veterinary medicine. Just 20 days before I graduated, I realized maybe that wasn’t for me after all. I had lunch with E.O. Wilson, a prominent biologist, a hero that further inspired my interest in conservation. After listening to my story he suggested that perhaps veterinary medicine was not my destiny. He told me the world needed me to help conserve, and I believed him. Lucky for me, paths are not set in stone and when I applied I was not accepted into vet school. Unsure of where my life would lead me next, the one thing I knew for sure was my passion for sea lions was unwavering. But where does one find sea lions in Oklahoma? I looked to my community zoo, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens, for volunteer opportunities. Not long after, I was hired to work with the training department. I had proximity to sea lions, but I was still missing the conservation piece. Within the year, I got married and moved to Houston, where I was hired as a full time sea lion keeper at the Houston Zoo.

A primary goal of the Houston Zoo is to connect communities to inspire action to save animals in the wild. Experiencing the Sea Lion Caves inspired me to work with sea lions in human care so that I could further spread the importance of conserving wild animals. I continued to graduate school to receive my master’s degree in wildlife science so that I could further contribute to wildlife conservation. As I have watched my career develop over the years, I am always brought back to my memory of the day I experienced the Sea Lion Caves and how I felt so moved from awareness to action from that single experience. My hope is to share this passion that was inspired all those years ago for this magnificent species. I find the most rewarding part of working for the Houston Zoo (outside of working directly with the sea lions) is inspiring others to take simple actions that contribute to saving animals in the wild. People find connections in their experiences at the zoo and I am humbled to know that my work can play even a small part in changing someone’s life, as the Sea Lion Caves visit did for me. Working with and caring for California sea lions brings me much joy. This year, the Houston Zoo welcomed a female pup. TJ was born to Jonah and Kamia and is a pleasure to watch as she masters new milestones. TJ is the first sea lion pup born at the Houston Zoo in 22 years and it is my great fortune to watch her grow and contribute to the education and awareness of many to come. I am thankful to our sea lions: Cali, Kamia, Jonah, Rockie, and TJ for making my dream possible.

I credit my single experience at the Oregon Sea Lion Caves for inspiring me to actively participate in conservation actions. It shaped my life and career. Our California sea lions at the zoo are ambassadors for the Houston Zoo’s plastic pollution and ocean-friendly seafood Take Action initiatives. As a sea lion keeper, I am able to live this mission of saving animals in the wild and use the zoo’s platform to influence and inspire others. I feel forever grateful that fate would have it for me to discover the Sea Lion Caves as a tiny spec on the map that day. Many thanks go to all involved in operating the Caves and sharing its beauty so others may have experiences similar to my own.

Originally written for Oregon Sea Lion Caves.