Sgt. Nevis, rescued Dec. 5 at Knights Landing in Yolo County and relocated to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in late February, underwent facial reconstructive surgery Friday to repair a gunshot wound. It was possibly the first surgery of its exact kind ever performed, officials said.
The silky brown- and black-pelted animal lifted himself onto his flippers to peer back at a media-filled room Friday, his limited-vision milky-blue eyes peering at each face. Despite the tight quarters of the cage used to transport him, Sgt. Nevis was able to flip around with surprising speed for his bulk, particularly after receiving a shot of anesthesia to the hindquarters.
Dr. Bill Van Bonn, director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center, who rescued Sgt. Nevis, said the sea lion has been hand-fed since his rescue. That's because it is "terribly uncomfortable" for him to dive deeply underwater with "huge holes in his nose," Van Bonn said.
"There's evidence he's been shot (in the head) before this, so he's been lucky more than once," Van Bonn said. "Someone is responsible for him being here, and it's our responsibility to take care of him."
Van Bonn, the Marine Mammal Center and Discovery Kingdom staff, and East Coast human reconstructive surgeon Dr. Praful Ramenini operated on Sgt. Nevis at the park Friday morning. Due to difficulties in getting and keeping the estimated 10- to 12-year-old animal unconscious, doctors eventually abandoned a plan to hoist the mammal onto an operating table, choosing instead to work right out of the cage.
Ramenini, a self-professed animal lover who donated his skills after being asked by a colleague's old college roommate, said the operation was very similar to working on a human. He said the animal likely will recover within a couple of weeks. The 30-minute surgery rotated a flap of soft facial tissue around to cover the bullet's exit wound.
The marine center rescued 1,704 marine mammals in 2009, 18 of which -- including Sgt. Nevis -- suffered gunshot wounds. Van Bonn said humans affect marine mammals on many levels, with pollution, entanglements, plastic bags and other items. Gunshot wounds are just the most obvious, he said.
Due to his injuries and time in human care, Sgt. Nevis never will return to the wild, Discovery Kingdom officials said. Unlike some sea lions at the park, Sgt. Nevis also will not be a performer, but he will be on display. An informational plaque at his community pool home shares his story with visitors.
The sea lion was named in honor of the Yolo County Sheriff's deputy, Michael Nevis, who watched over him after his rescue. Following his five-month recuperation, the sea lion was moved to Vallejo as his new permanent home.
According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Sutter County resident Larry Allen Legans was arrested on allegations of animal cruelty, negligent firearm discharge and the taking of a marine mammal in November, shortly after Sgt. Nevis' shooting. His trial is scheduled for Oct. 19.