Peter and Penny Penguin flew from San Diego to Sacramento last week. For real. On Southwest Airlines. Their boarding passes listed their names. Each had an assigned seat. And the pilot allowed them to walk the aisle once the seatbelt sign was turned off.

Once a year, for more than a decade, the team at SeaWorld San Diego has brought a collection of animals to the state capit0l. The company’s vice president of state affairs Corrine Brindley has led the effort throughout its history. She is also the current president of the California Attractions and Parks Association, on whose board of directors Oakland’s Children’s Fairyland is also represented.

In the beginning, it was just penguins visiting legislators’ offices until the birds got tired. But for the last 10 years, the effort to educate and discuss conservation has become more organized, with a big tent on the capitol grounds housing a number of animals that interact with elected officials and with local school groups.

This year’s delegation included a kangaroo (which apparently greatly interested and excited  Gov. Jerry Brown’s dog Sutter) a screech owl and a kinkajou (a rainforest mammal) in addition to the penguins. Only one penguin made it into the governor’s inner sanctum, where the governor and a group of capitol fellows  asked all kinds of questions.

What Corrine didn’t share with members of the public was the little white lie she told the rental car worker when she returned the car that had transported the penguins to and from the airport. Had she detected a funny smell in the vehicle, he wanted to know. “No,” she sweetly responded.

During past capitol events, Corrine has shared her hotel room with numerous animals, including lemurs, sloths and an occasional amphibian that appreciates a steamy shower. The Sacramento Hyatt staff is very gracious, and will deliver grapes at midnight to Corrine’s nocturnal friends. Corinne has some tips for anyone in a similar situation. “When you have an otter in your room, it’s best to remove the toilet paper from the roll,” she advises. She’s learned just how effective the paws of this mischievous mammal can be.

Elected officials are always invited to SeaWorld’s tent, and this year the state’s coastal representatives came to hear an update on two disturbing occurrences in Southern California that have resulted in an unprecedented number of animals currently being rehabilitated at SeaWorld. The first is being referred to as a UME, or unusual mortality event. Hundreds of young sea lions, sick and starving, have been stranded on the beach; a record high water temperature that has altered the distribution of prey fish is considered the cause. The second event is the recent oil spill in the Santa Barbara area, which has affected elephant seals.

In response to these catastrophes, SeaWorld San Diego has taken in a record number of marine mammals for rehabilitation: over 800 sea lions since January. The park temporarily closed its sea lion show and redirected staff to the round-the-clock rescue effort. They also built supplemental pools to accommodate the overload.

With its trained veterinarians and a surgical suite, SeaWorld boasts a high rate of survival; from 68 to 70 percent. The park doesn’t receive any government or grant funds for this effort. 

SeaWorld’s annual trek to the capitol involves a motor caravan that transports many of the animals, airline tickets for penguins, and a lot of complicated logistics to ensure the health and safety of the traveling animals.

Corrine thinks it’s worth the effort. “If people never have face-to-face connections with animals, it’s easier not to care about them in the wild,” she says.

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