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Daily News Peninsula Bureau

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 04/27/98
Day: Monday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

SEWARD- Dennis Christen opened a wrought-iron gate, shut it behind him, then clicked open a thick steel door at the other end of the hallway. He casually stepped onto the artificial rocks of the Alaska SeaLife Center's Steller sea lion habitat and raised a hand. Hanging from the other hand was a metal pail full of herring on ice.

''Hey, Woody, come in,'' Christen said in the kind of sing-song baby voice used by parents and pet owners.

Woody splashed out of the water and was there in an instant, scooting his chocolate-brown-colored frame over the concrete. Huge flippers jutted out, slapping the floor as he lifted his whiskered head. Big round eyes focused on Christen. Woody was eager, like a hunting dog poised for action.

Christen, dressed in a blue wind-breaker and rubber boots, tossed a couple of herring into Woody's mouth.

''G-o-o-o-o-o-o-d boy, that's a good boy,'' he said.

Woody bellowed, a coarse baritone.

For the next 10 minutes, the 200-pound man and 550-pound adolescent sea lion performed a morning ritual, face to face. Christen would gesture with an arm, give a command or simply display his palm, raising his fingers and lowering his thumb as if working a hand puppet.

The cue prompted the sea lion to open his mouth, allowing Christen to poke around inside to make sure Woody's teeth and gums were healthy.

Woody rolled over and held out one flipper after another for inspection, each time earning ''good boy'' and another herring. Christen asked Woody to get in a wheeled cage, then get out again -- practice for the next time he would be carted to another pool.

By the time it was over, Christen had accomplished several things. He'd given Woody a physical, reinforced the sea lion's training, provided a mental workout for the animal and fed him.

He performs the same routine with the SeaLife Center's two other Stellers, females Sugarloaf and Kiska, who are the same age as Woody and come from the same Canada rookery.

For Christen, the morning exercise was routine. But other people training Steller sea lions at aquariums worldwide view him as a pioneer.

Because Stellers are unpredictable, few humans venture right up to Steller sea lions; most keep an electric fence between them. And the animals aren't expected to learn much.

''They have a pretty harsh reputation,'' Christen said.

Most of the world's captive Steller sea lions are kept at aquariums in Japan, according to the SeaLife Center. A marine park in Holland has six Stellers, and another in Connecticut has six more. Four pups are being raised at the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia.

Most marine parks work with California sea lions, the other member of the sea lion family. Christen calls them the border collies of sea lions -- alert animals that don't mind hands-on training.

''Stellers are more like a bull mastiff,'' he said. They're not as quick to catch on, but still capable learners, he said. They're also more inclined to challenge for dominance and fight.

Adult bulls weigh more than 1,500 pounds, and that can pose a problem.

Woody, now 5, should reach that weight within four years, Christen said. A sea lion can reach 30 years of age.

''He can be stubborn,'' Christen said of Woody. ''He's got his days when he doesn't want to participate.''

When Woody is slow to respond, he sometimes closes his eyes and lifts his head. Christen usually calls the session off. That way, good behavior wins happy talk and herring while a bad attitude yields nothing. Christen said he's convinced even big aggressive creatures like Woody will cooperate with humans.

Christen has proven his point, other trainers say. He has taught Woody to lie down and, occasionally, allow blood to be drawn from a needle jabbed into his rump. Christen even brushes the sea lions' teeth.

''That's something really incredible,'' said Gwyneth Shephard, who replaced Christen as head marine mammal trainer in Vancouver after the Alaska SeaLife Center hired him away.

Christen, a biologist, moved north to continue working with Woody, Sugarloaf and Kiska, who he raised from pups in Vancouver.

Now 25, Christen is something of a Steller sea lion Wunderkind. He began working at the Vancouver aquarium as part of a high school science honors program. That led to a job at the aquarium, which studies juvenile sea lions. He was one of the first marine mammal keepers convinced that Stellers could be trained to cooperate, Shephard said.

''He has introduced a lot of ideas,'' Shephard said. ''He led the way.''

Researchers who hope to unlock the mystery of why populations of Steller sea lions have dwindled along the Pacific Rim are relying on Christen's husbandry skills to gain access to sea lions such as Woody. They want to take blood, check weight and monitor blubber thickness.

Alaska's Steller population west of Cape St. Elias has been declared endangered, and nobody knows why they sea lion numbers are dropping. In a region south of Kenai Peninsula, the population has fallen from 150,000 in the 1970s to 25,000 now, researchers say.

Story Index:
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