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Aquarium hopes obese kids flip for athletic seals

YES, he's obsessed with grooming, and he occasionally barks at you, but in most ways Isaac is not your typical fitness instructor. He weighs in at 158 kilograms, eats 7.3 kilograms of food at a time and he's only nine years old. And he's a seal.

Isaac is one of five northern fur seals to be featured in a new exhibit at the New England Aquarium in Boston that aims to entice an increasingly obese generation of kids to get moving.

The seals twist, stretch, leap out of the water, run on their flippers and shoot like missiles under and between the fiberglass rocks. Isaac even stands on his head.

The "Move It!" program at the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center uses the seals' athleticism as an example for children.

"Those marine animals will do things that are jaw-dropping at times," said Tony LaCasse, an aquarium spokesman. "We wanted kids to be inspired by them."

The seals are rarely this close to the Atlantic. They live in the Pacific from Southern California to Japan, and north to the Bering Sea. Males grow to up to 2.13 meters long and 227 kilograms, while females are about 1.5 meters and 50 kilograms.

The seals are considered depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and a big reason is the hunters who pursued their pelt - two layers thick and stuffed with 50,000 hairs per square centimeter.

The pelt demands constant grooming, and the seals attend to themselves in an endearing way, contorting their bodies so their long flippers can get the job done.

Kathy Streeter, the aquarium's marine mammals curator, calls the northern fur seal a "Dr Seuss animal" - a quirky combination of a sea otter and sea lion. It has ears, unlike the harbor seals common around Boston, has a distinctive bark and can prop itself up on its long flippers to look at visitors face to face.

That charisma, plus its story as a hunted and scarce animal, made it a good choice for a marine mammal center that seeks to help people relate to ocean life, Streeter said.

"They help give people a perspective on how the ocean affects everybody," she said.

The center opening is a sign of health at the aquarium three years after it regained its accreditation since repairing shaky finances.

The accreditation was pulled in 2003 by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums after financial struggles and layoffs followed two major expansions in the late 1990s.

The new center's childhood fitness push comes as statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 32 percent of American kids aged two to 19 are overweight, including 17 percent who are obese.

Panels around the aquarium will show seal moves like stretching, jumping and swimming, explain how the moves are like humans' and encourage kids to "Try It!"

A guide that visitors get with their tickets includes more exhortations to move like the seals, and also eat some of the healthy fish they devour.

In the center, the seals will perform stretches and moves with trainers, and some kids will be allowed to exercise with them.

An environmental biologist, Paul Boyle, said other institutions had pushed programs that get kids engaged outdoors, but that tying seal moves to kid fitness was unique and innovative.


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