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Della, a blind gray seal, now calls Niagara Falls aquarium home

NIAGARA FALLS – A blind gray seal named Della has a new home at the Aquarium of Niagara.

The 25-year-old seal comes to Niagara Falls from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

All of the Niagara Falls aquarium’s marine mammals are rescue animals, and the Falls facility is one of fewer than 10 in North America that cares for gray seals, officials said.

Della arrived at the aquarium in December and has been working with staff since she got here. She moved into the public outdoor exhibit Thursday morning.

Gray seals live on the Atlantic coast of North America, in Canada and the northeast United States, said Gary Siddall, the aquarium’s deputy director.

Della was rescued off the coast of Delaware – which is how she got her name – and got to the zoo in Chicago when she was about a year old. That’s where she’s been for the last two dozen years, Siddall said.

She weighs 310 pounds and is currently eating about 14 pounds of fish a day, though her appetite varies with the season.

The lifespan of a gray seal can extend into their 50s under human care.

“She loves rubdowns and, as you can probably tell from her size, she also loves food,” Mark Gonka, lead keeper at the Brookfield Zoo, said in a statement. Gonka traveled with Della to Niagara Falls and worked with her daily in Chicago.

“Because Della is blind, her trainers are basically her eyes,” Gonka said. “She’s very trusting and she knows that with us guiding her she’ll never swim into a wall.”

Della is housed in the aquarium’s outdoor habitat, along with Pepper, a 7-year-old, partially paralyzed gray seal, and Sandy, a harbor seal.

Della will work with the aquarium’s team of six animal trainers. Tammy Weber, assistant supervisor of marine mammals, has been working with Della on a daily basis since she arrived.

“I think Della’s hearing is acute because she can’t rely on her sight,” Weber said in a written statement. “Della needs to respond to tactile or verbal cues instead of hand gestures and she follows verbal prompts without hesitation.”

Siddall, the deputy director, said the aquarium’s mission is to promote education and conservation by giving the public the chance to see animals they may not normally encounter.

People need to be conscious that their actions have an effect on the environment and can impact animals living in the wild, Siddall said.