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Slippery the Sea Lion – Podcast #207

If I were to mention that today’s story unfolds along the Thames River in London, you might naturally assume that it took place in England. That would certainly be my first thought. But both you and I would be wrong. Instead, the setting is an entire ocean away: on the Thames River in London, Ontario.

It was there in 1958 that the city unveiled Storybook Gardens, a captivating theme park set right inside its Springbank Park. This whimsical enclave within the larger park was a true wonder, featuring structures, characters, and creatures plucked right out of beloved children’s stories.

For instance, you could find Old MacDonald’s Farm, complete with a barn and live farm animals. There was also the abode of the Big Bad Wolf, where three real piglets played under the watchful gaze of a fierce wolf statue. And from the Goldilocks story, the three bears also had their home in the gardens, complete with—you guessed it—a trio of live bear cubs. Along with amusement rides, refreshment stands, and the typical park offerings, Storybook Gardens was a combination zoo, park, and entertainment center all in one place.

On Monday, June 16, 1958, the park welcomed its latest additions, two California Sea Lions, Zalophus Californianus, named Cyril and Lonesome. These playful sea lions were just one year old. However, a minor hiccup occurred—the sea lions arrived a day earlier than expected, and the construction of their pool was not quite finished yet.

Animals possess an uncanny knack for discovering even the smallest imperfections in their enclosures. Having spent years working in my parents’ pet shop when I was younger, I can attest that animals have an amazing ability to discover any means of escape. I could recount numerous incidents involving fish, birds, snakes, hamsters, gerbils, and mice that somehow managed to break free within their store.

It’s the same thing at a zoo, but typically on a much larger scale. Escape might involve leaping off an enclosure roof, bounding over a moat, or, in Cyril’s case, slipping beneath an unfinished fence. And as soon as Cyril was free, he made a beeline for the nearby Thames River, a mere 200 yards (183 meters) away. By 8 AM the following morning, Cyril had vanished, leaving poor Lonesome feeling truly lonesome.

The staff at the London Public Utilities Commission, the park’s operators, swiftly took to the river in a motorboat. Equipped with nets and a wire crate, they were ready to retrieve Cyril, that is if they managed to catch him. Unfortunately, sea lions are highly skilled swimmers, and Cyril had vanished into the water, leaving this story far from its conclusion.

Little hope remained for Cyril’s return. Firstly, he needed a saltwater environment to thrive long-term, necessitating a challenging journey to reach the Atlantic Ocean. This arduous route involved navigating the winding Thames River to Lake St. Clair, sometimes referred to as the sixth Great Lake, then traversing the entire Detroit River, crossing Lake Erie, finding a way around Niagara Falls, crossing Lake Ontario, swimming the full-length of the St. Lawrence Seaway with its canal locks, passing through Montreal and Quebec City, and finally reaching the open ocean. Even if he miraculously reached the Atlantic, he would still be thousands of miles from his native Pacific habitat.

In addition to these daunting challenges, experts from California had warned park officials that sea lions required saltwater to maintain their eye health. If Cyril spent more than a month in freshwater, he faced a significant risk of going blind. In simple terms, the odds of his survival were exceedingly slim, at best.

A.L. Furanna, assistant general manager of the Public Utilities Commission, told the press, “We’ve probably seen the last of the sea lion.” He added that they would promptly order a replacement sea lion from the California Ocean Aquarium. The cost would mirror that of acquiring Cyril: $150, plus an additional $60 for shipping (equivalent to approximately $2200 today in total). The anticipated delivery time was around two weeks.

Nonetheless, they remained determined to capture Cyril. Furanna reached out to California for guidance on handling an elusive sea lion. As Furanna explained, “The best approach is to scare it. If you yell ‘Boo’ at it long enough it’s supposed to crawl up on the land and lie on its back whimpering.”

With Cyril confined within the banks of the Thames, many reported seeing him as he made his way southwest toward Lake St. Clair. Estimates placed his speed at approximately 15 mph (24.1 km/h), so he was trucking along. He was first spotted in Delaware, then Melbourne, and then Wardsville. When Cyril reached Chatham, hundreds of people gathered along the shoreline to watch him swim by.

Cyril’s journey along the Thames proved to be quite popular with the public. Updates to his story appeared in newspapers both in Canada and the United States daily. The London Free Press offered a $200 (about $2,000 in today’s money) reward for the capture of Cyril, while the Toronto Star offered $100 (approximately $1,000 today) for the best picture turned over to the paper.

There were various attempts by zoo officials to capture Cyril but none were successful. They even broadcast recorded grunts and honks of another sea lion, hoping that this might entice him within capture range, but that also failed.

Cyril wasn’t letting up for a second. He just kept going.

A mere two days after his escape, Cyril successfully covered the 85-mile (137 km) journey to the river’s end and ventured out into the open waters of Lake St. Clair.

Ernest Duguette, a 41-year-old auto dealer from nearby Tilbury, spotted Cyril romping in the waves of the lake, not far from the mouth of the Thames. “It looked like somebody swimming, then it went under and flopped up again. It was going fast, and I thought nobody swims like that.” He added, “I thought it was a seal and wondered where on earth it came from, but there it was. We were about 100 feet (approximately 30.5 m) away from it as it swam into the lake and headed for open water.”

By the next day, Cyril was spotted in the Detroit River, which connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie.

Early map of Storybook Gardens by cartoonist Ting (Merle Tingley).

Frank McInnis, Detroit Zoo director, felt that the only way Cyril could be recaptured was if he were to become tired and confused, at which point he would go ashore, where he could be netted. Sadly, McInnis felt that Cyril would be unable to find the proper diet and would ultimately die from starvation. On the other hand, he pointed out that both Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie have herring, a favorite of sea lions.

Cyril successfully made it through the Detroit River and into Lake Erie. He was now nearly 250 miles (400 km) from London, Ontario, and was traveling at about half of his original speed.

But then he took a wrong turn. He needed to head east toward the Atlantic. Instead, he went southward in the lake for a while before turning westward into the Maumee River in Toledo, Ohio on Friday, June 20th.

It was Phil Skeldon, director of the Toledo Zoo, who got the call about Cyril.  He admitted that when a coal dock worker contacted the zoo to report a sea lion sighting in the river, he was initially doubtful. The zoo routinely received calls from individuals who claimed to have spotted various creatures. Nevertheless, he consulted with the police, and within 10 minutes, he confirmed the presence of the sea lion.

After setting out on the water, Skeldon and his crew eventually sighted Cyril, but their attempts to apprehend him were unsuccessful. Cyril would surface in one location, only to swiftly dive beneath the water as they drew near. Suddenly, he would reappear to their left, right, in front of, or behind them. Skeldon recounted to the press the next day, “We followed him for about six miles. We didn’t catch him, but we got within about 15 feet (4.6 m) of him. He was very friendly. He rolled on his back and looked at us, dived under the boat and came along side.”

Cyril then left them and headed upstream toward Fort Wayne, Indiana, but Skeldon was nearly certain that the sea lion would never get there. “At Maumee, ten miles from here, there is shallow water and a series of rapids. I think Cyril will turn around and head back.”

And just in case he was spotted again, Skeldon and his team began preparations to capture Cyril. He told reporters that the next time, “We might just use a gun. That’s an air gun—well, it’s powered by gas, actually—which fires an aluminum syringe. You give them a shot of tranquilizer…” The chosen tranquilizer was a combination of nicotine and pentothal, which had been prepared by the Toledo Zoo veterinarian. However, there was an inherent risk associated with using the tranquilizer. It had a tendency to induce paralysis in its target, potentially causing the animal to sink to the bottom of the water. Skeldon speculated, “In shallow water it just might work, but in deeper water she might go down and not come up.”

It’s worth noting that Skeldon referred to Cyril as “she” and not “he.” This was due to the uncertainty surrounding Cyril’s gender at that time. Cyril had only been in the custody of Storybook Gardens for a few hours before making a getaway, and his or her gender had not been definitively determined.

Skeldon also dismissed the notion that freshwater would lead to the animal’s blindness. “We keep ours in fresh water all the time. Sometimes they develop a little minor eye trouble, but nothing serious.”

There were no reports of Cyril being spotted anywhere on Saturday, June 21, 1958. The same was true for Sunday and Monday. Skeldon speculated, “After the way he played around with us on Friday, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cyril had backtracked and is headed toward Niagara.”

As Tuesday rolled around—this is now one week after his escape—there was still no sign of Cyril. As dusk rolled around, Harry Rose decided to go fishing for catfish on the Portage River in Port Clinton, Ohio, which lies approximately 35 miles (56 km) southeast of Toledo. “I was fishing when I saw something swimming across the river. I thought at first two other fellows who were fishing near me had a dog with them.

“It would swim eight or 10 feet on top, then go under for eight or 10 feet, then come back on top again. It was only about 100 feet from me.

“Then I realized it might be the sea lion. I couldn’t see what else it could be. It swam across the river and out of sight.”

Harry immediately called the local sheriff, who wisely opted to call Phil Skeldon. And he had a plan. Recognizing that the river was quite shallow where it emptied into Lake Erie, he instructed the sheriff to have nets extended across the mouth of the river, which would effectively trap Cyril. He may try swimming upstream, but would encounter rapids, which would force him back toward Lake Erie.

On Wednesday, June 25, 1958, a tornado made landfall in Lasalle, Ontario, approximately seven miles (11 kilometers) to the southwest of Windsor. Resident Richard Amlin heard that a search was underway for two boys believed to have been aboard an overturned boat. As Amlin launched his own boat out onto the Detroit River to help with the search, he spotted Cyril. “When I got the boat into the water, I saw a black fuzzy head looking at me. I’m sure it was Cyril because he seemed to have a cute grin on his face. He swam about 50 feet (15.2 m) from my boat, then ducked under the water. All I saw was his tail, then he appeared in the middle of the river.”

Cyril frolicked around Amlin’s boat for approximately five minutes before eventually swimming in the direction of Windsor. As the crow flies, Cyril was now over fifty miles (80 km) away from the area where Phil Skeldon and his team had been conducting their search.

As we know, Cyril was not known for being predictable. He turned around and went farther south than he had ever been on Lake Erie before. Then Thursday, at around 4:30 PM, Cyril was spotted sunning himself on a large raft in Sandusky Bay in Ohio.

Would Skeldon finally catch the sea lion? As his boat pulled in close to Cyril, he fired his first shot. The tranquilizer dart hit Cyril in his shoulder and he immediately dived into the water. As soon as he came back to the surface, two boats moved in. Cyril was lying on his back, apparently stunned by the shot. And just as they reached out to put Cyril in the cage, he suddenly got a burst of energy and dived back under the water again.

The chase was on!

Over the next two hours, with an estimated 200 spectators observing from the shore, a tense game of hide-and-seek unfolded. Despite their best efforts, Skeldon and his team were unable to capture Cyril. Frustrated, Skeldon fired a second dart into Cyril’s thick hide.

As nightfall loomed, they guided the boat towards the shoreline to retrieve a portable lighting unit from the Sandusky Fire Department. However, just as they were about to resume their search, their boat encountered engine difficulties, forcing them to abandon the mission for the night.

Cyril had once again evaded capture.

The next morning, Cyril was spotted by fishermen resting inside of a nearby boathouse. The men kept him cornered until help arrived from the Toledo Zoo. Dan Danford, the zoo’s curator of mammals, skillfully looped a noose over Cyril’s head. Together with Skeldon, they guided him into a cage and secured the door. A short while later, they loaded the cage into a station wagon and transported Cyril to the Toledo Zoo for proper care.

In the ten days since his escape, it was estimated that Cyril had traveled a minimum of 400 miles (645 km).

Within hours of his capture, the Toronto Star arranged for a chartered plane to transport two officials from the London Public Utilities Commission, in addition to a reporter and a photographer, down to Toledo to arrange for Cyril’s return home. After meeting with Phil Skeldon at the Toledo Zoo, the commissioners returned to London Friday evening with their mission unaccomplished.

There were two reasons for this.

The first was that Cyril was in no condition to be transported. After a thorough examination by Dr. Carl Johnson, the veterinarian at the Toledo Zoo, the assessment was clear: “He just can’t be moved. He is covered with sores. He’s sick and sad. He will be happy here.”

But the real problem was that Skeldon was now claiming ownership of Cyril. “I really didn’t give it much thought at first but started thinking about it on the way home after it was caught.

“It’s my understanding that there is an old, very old, law that when an animal escapes from a zoo, it belongs to whomever captures it.”

He also felt that once Cyril left the Thames River, the Public Utilities Commission gave up their search for him. He was considered lost, and they even went as far as ordering a new sea lion from California. Skeldon said, “I think our zoo has some claim to this animal, legal or moral. After all, as I understand it, you people abandoned him. We went to some trouble to catch him.”

Meanwhile, attendance at the Toledo Zoo skyrocketed with the news of Cyril’s capture. They were charging each person 50 cents (about $5.30 today) to see him, although children could do so for free.

The reality was that the Toledo Zoo had stumbled into a major money maker, and they weren’t about to give it up.

But was it really finders’ keepers, losers weepers? Who really had the right to Cyril? Was it the park in London that purchased him, but ultimately lost him? Or was it the Toledo Zoo, who dedicated significant resources and time in their effort to capture him?

A minor international incident between Canada and the United States was brewing. Ohio Governor C. William O’Neill was questioned about his opinion on the matter, but he opted to take a “hands-off” approach for the time being.

Detective Captain Robert W. Traver, who directed the Sandusky police department during Cyril’s capture, was surprised by Skeldon’s decision. “We could have called the Cleveland zoo officials or waited for London zoo personnel to fly to Sandusky. We assumed that the Toledo zoo officials were just as interested in returning the animal to London as we were.”

The citizens of London were outraged. Waitress Sherry Ormand took it upon herself to raise the funds needed to repurchase Cyril. Just one day after Cyril’s capture, she set off for Toledo with both the $150 that had been collected and a petition signed by 125 London residents, all of whom were requesting Cyril’s return.

I am betting that you think that sea lions cannot speak. Well, I am here to prove to you that you are wrong. Toronto Star ace reporter Jack Gale managed to get an exclusive interview with Cyril. Here is just a portion of what Cyril had to say:

“Put it this way. They tried to make a monkey out of me, a sea-lion. They called me a seal. So I left.”

Cyril continued, “I’m not much more than a year old. Why, in your lingo, I’m barely out of my teens. So what happens? I get captured, thrown in with this good-looking babe, and shipped to London.

“Me—Cyril, toughest kid on the beach—me get married and settle down? I wasn’t ready. And once someone at Storybook Gardens called me a seal, that was the last straw.”

Gale then began to ask him what the difference was between a sea lion and a seal, but Cyril seemed annoyed and cut him off with a wave of his flipper.

“I don’t know why I should go on with this. It’s obvious you’re like the rest — ignorant. You’re the only one left, so I’ll tell you. A seal has no ears. A sea lion has. Anyone with eyes can see I have ears. Ergo, I’m not a seal.”

After he took a sip of water from a nearby hose, Cyril went on. “As a sea lion, I have a certain reputation to uphold. We are bold and adventuresome. We’re not the marrying kind. We like to live it up; and from where I lounged, up in London, far away seas looked greener.”

Then he told of how he left. “I told ‘Lonesome’—that’s my wife—I’d be back. I told her I was just stepping out for a breath of salty air.

“But I was really going to investigate these things called Canadians. After all, I was going to have to change my citizenship and everything. I had a right to know.

“But the Canadians fooled me. I no sooner got my whiskers into your Thames River (remember, I’d never been in a river before) when I discovered the thing had a one-way current.

“There was no way for me to go but away. I tried to fight it, but I couldn’t. I remember rounding the far-away bend and hearing Lonesome call—or was it that tape-recording they made of her voice? — But I was too beat to answer. I couldn’t even bark.

“When I got to Lake St. Clair, I could see the lights of Windsor and Detroit. ‘That’s for me,’ I thought. But when I got into the Detroit river, there was a one-way current too. I was stumped again. I just had to keep going.”

And the interview continues, but you get the idea…

Meanwhile, the stalemate over which zoo would get to keep Cyril went on. Attendance at the Toledo Zoo continued to soar. For example, on Sunday, June 29th, 23,000 people visited the zoo. Prior Sunday attendances had never exceeded 13,000. Cyril the sea lion was perhaps the biggest crowd-getter in the history of the zoo up until that point.

Phil Skeldon faced swift and overwhelming backlash for his decision. He found himself inundated with telegrams and phone calls, many of which accused him of kidnapping. Moreover, the media coverage was far from favorable, which put the Toledo Zoo in a negative light. In response to this mounting pressure, on Saturday, June 28, 1958, Skeldon caved in and consented to return Cyril as soon as he was well enough. As an added bonus, the Toledo Zoo would toss in a 2-month-old puma named Lucky.

Skeldon insisted on keeping Cyril, who had now taken on the moniker of Slippery the Sea Lion in the press, through the July 4th Independence Day holiday. Clearly, that was being done to maximize profits at the zoo.

On July 5,1958, London Mayor Allan Johnston issued a lengthy proclamation that concluded with, “Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the said counsel, I declare Sunday, July 6, to be ‘Cyril’ Day in London, and call upon all citizens to attend the welcoming parade at approximately 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”

On Sunday morning, a procession of six cars traveled from the Toledo Zoo to the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit. Crossing the Detroit River, they entered Windsor, Ontario, marking Cyril’s return to Canadian soil. It was in Windsor that Skeldon formally handed Cyril over to a group of dignitaries from the London Public Utilities Commission. Skeldon’s exact words were, “He’s all yours.” To which Elmo Curtis, Chairman of the Commission, replied, “We are happy to have him back, and we thank Mr. Skeldon and the Toledo folks who made his return trip possible. Incidentally, we’ve fixed that fence just to make sure because the next time we might not get him back.”

Before telling you about the parade, I just wanted to mention that there is footage of it on YouTube. I’ll place a link to it on my website if you would like to view it. It was filmed in black and white and is mostly silent. But if you know this story beforehand, you should be able to figure out most of what is going on.

In the film, there is a Jeep Utility Wagon with a large banner affixed to the side. It reads, “Hello London. Toledo Zoo Returning London’s Wandering Sea Lion ‘Cyril’.” The rear hatch of the vehicle is wide open, allowing onlookers to easily see the cage holding Cyril.

In a side window of that same vehicle is a smaller sign that reads “Have Flippers — Will Travel. Cyril, the Wandering Sea Lion, Heads Back to London, Ont., From, Ohio Zoo Via a “Jeep” Utility Wagon After a 400 Mile Swim.”

As police cars escort Cyril home, a young girl can be seen holding up a handwritten sign that says, “Welcome Home! Slippery & Lucky!”

Then there was a convertible with a sign on its side that reads, “The Jaycees Welcome Home Slippery.”

Even Lucky, the baby puma, can be seen in the film. It was on a leash and looked very unhappy with so many kids trying to pet it.

It was estimated that approximately 50,000 people cheered Cyril on as he made his way along the parade route. According to the website Macrotrends, the population of London was 164,000 in 1958, meaning that nearly 1 out of every 3 people attended the parade. It was clearly a huge celebration.

That evening, at a welcome home gala, Mayor Johnston presented Phil Skeldon with a framed photo of Cyril. This can be seen in the video. In exchange, Skeldon presented the mayor and Cyril with the keys to the city of Toledo. There were clearly no hard feelings between the two.

After this, Cyril’s name would no longer be used. He was now simply referred to as Slippery the Sea Lion, although many articles continued to mistakenly refer to him as Slippery the Seal.

Slippery quickly became the star attraction at Storybook Gardens. A prominent sign was installed beside the sea lion enclosure, recounting his daring escape, while his likeness was used to sell a lot of merchandise.

But no one lives forever, and that includes sea lions. On January 11, 1967, officials at Storybook Gardens announced that Slippery had passed away at an undetermined age. But we can do some math and calculate that he was around ten years of age.

Within that same YouTube video, a scene unfolds where four men are observed carrying a large, coffin-like container. This solemn moment appears to be Slippery’s funeral. In attendance are several dignitaries, with one official prominently displaying a telegram to the camera. Although the text is challenging to discern—with only one-half of each line being legible—it is clear that the telegram was sent by Phil Skeldon at the Toledo Zoo and alludes to something concerning Slippery’s escape. The landscape is blanketed in snow, and an ice sculpture resembling a sea lion is visible. The box was then carefully lowered into the ground using ropes.

Also in the camera footage, there is a moment when a statue commemorating Slippery is unveiled. Today, Storybook Gardens no longer houses live animals, and the sea lion pool is long gone. As a result, the statue has been relocated just beyond the park’s entrance, where it overlooks a pool of water. However, there is no accompanying signage to explain the significance of the statue. The question arises: Do the present-day young visitors know the story of Slippery the Sea Lion? I doubt it. But maybe they should…

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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