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Gunnar The 'Navy Seal' Dies; Was In Top-Secret Program For Marine Mammals

Gunnar in 2007.
Mehgan Murphy
AFP/Getty Images
Gunnar in 2007.

While monitoring the news from California, Colorado, Syria and other places, we almost missed this story from right in our neighborhood:

Gunnar, a gray seal who lived at the National Zoo here in Washington, D.C., died on Monday. He was 38.

Known as a "gentle giant," he wasn't just any seal. He was a true "Navy Seal."

Gunnar spent about six years working for the U.S. Navy as part of what was a top-secret program to train marine mammals to perform underwater work, as the zoo reported in this profile back in 2008. It was hoped, for example, that they could make deep dives to perform simple tasks or retrieve items.

According to The Washington Post's John Kelly, Gunnar's curiosity made him a Navy seal and was also the reason he "washed out" of the program. He learned to do some things, such as turning a wheeled valve. But "gray seals were not reliably trainable," Daryl Boness, retired curator of marine mammals at the zoo, told the Post. Or, as Rebecca Miller, an animal keeper at the zoo said to the newspaper: "Sea lions are like dogs, and seals are like cats: difficult to train, stubborn and aloof."

So the Navy donated Gunnar and two other gray seals to the zoo in 1979.

He showed during his time in Washington that he still had some "problemsolving abilities," the zoo reported in that 2008 post:

"Linda Moore, a National Zoo biologist ... was surprised recently. ... When Moore was feeding Gunnar, one fish dropped to the bottom of the pool and disappeared under the drain grate. Moore showed Gunnar the empty fish bucket, which is how keepers indicate a feeding is over. She planned to then go flush the fallen fish out of the drain — but noticed Gunnar swimming toward the drain. 'He took his front flipper and began waving it rapidly over the grate. Suddenly the fish popped up out of the grate and Gunnar ate it! This was obviously something he had figured out how to do on his own, and it didn't appear to be the first time he had done it.' "

(H/T to Newscast's Jeanine Herbst.)

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.

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