It might just be something in the way they move, but to me, sea lions seem to be among the most enthusiastic of the sea-dwelling mammals. Even when they’re just flopped out on a buoy, they’re never still. And when they’re doing trained “behaviors” — such as catching in a ring toss or blowing kisses to humans — you can understand why they’re often compared to dogs.
Except you’d never expect a dog to be artistic. And after 10 minutes in the company of Wilbur, the beloved painting sea lion of Islamorada, I would absolutely characterize him as an artiste. Bewhiskered, flippery, slippery, and as full of swagger as any human artist in the world, he wields a paintbrush assuredly by gripping it in his mouth. You may not recognize yourself — or anything at all — in the finished work, but really that is no different from any human’s artistic license. If Wilbur’s work were displayed in a gallery, no one would guess that it had been painted by a pinniped.
Wilbur doing his thing. (Photo: Lena Katz)
Wilbur lives and works at Theater of the Sea, a marine animal facility in tropical Islamorada, an unincorporated island village in the Florida Keys. The park has been open since the 1940s and is a pioneer in interactive animal programs. Located on 17 lush jungle-esque acres with the ocean on one side, Theater of the Sea is as much an animal rescue/rehabilitation organization as a park. It takes in and provides care and homes for injured sea turtles, crocodilians, raptors, a sea lion, and approximately 40 cats.
For some of the rescues, such as Alley the alligator, activities like painting are purely therapeutic. For others, such as Bella the sea lion, caretakers allow humans to share the experience. It’s always up to the animals whether they want to participate in the interactive programs or any behavior. So far, Bella, a rescue, has shown an interest in painting, but Wilbur, who was born in captivity, is the showman of the sea lions.
Wilbur is ready for his close-up. (Photo: Lean Katz)
Wilbur has been the artist in residence for many years, and in addition to starring in the sea lion shows, he is available for private “paint with a sea lion” sessions. He slides up onto the podium in front of the easel like a lounge diva sliding atop a piano. Once painting, he gets so into his brushstrokes that you wonder how he isn’t sliding right off his relatively small perch. When particularly hit by the creative spirit, he waves one flipper from side to side as though conducting music. While his handlers change out each color, he scopes out any cameras in the vicinity and stares intently into them.
Upon a trainer’s commands, Wilbur will also perform other typical sea lion tricks, like “blowing kisses” or twirling a ball on his nose. However, he’s not quite as disciplined at these, and in a one-on-one program, he’s likely to take a spontaneous leap into the pool instead of finishing a behavior. Clearly, painting is what he takes seriously.
Bella, on the other hand, is more approachable and perhaps more sweet-tempered, but she is still tentative with a paintbrush. She was born with a neurological condition similar to Parkinson’s, and her head constantly bobs back and forth in a way that doesn’t pain her, but it also doesn’t make her superconfident wielding a delicate instrument. Painting with Bella is actually a much more interactive activity, because she needs help from the person holding the canvas in order to connect her brush to it.
Painting with Bella at Theater of the Sea (Photo: Lena Katz)
Theater of the Sea isn’t the only animal facility that offers sea lions the chance to paint. It’s hard to say who came up with it first. Painting sea lions have made the news in England, Japan, and California. But the people of the Florida Keys have always had an especially friendly relationship with animals: Be they wild, domestic, feral, rescued, or born in captivity, it makes no difference — they still are beloved. So it’s no surprise that Wilbur has become an Islamorada icon.
“Paint With a Sea Lion” encounters are available every afternoon. Advance reservations are recommended, as availability is limited. Proceeds go to Theater of the Sea’s animal enrichment program.
My final sea lion masterpiece (Photo: Lena Katz)