'It’s heartbreaking': Milwaukee zoo partnership that provides homes to seals & sea lions to leave

The non-profit Ocean Connections will be leaving the Milwaukee County Zoo in early December. The group provides forever homes to both seals and sea lions.
Posted at 9:13 AM, Sep 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-21 10:13:07-04

MILWAUKEE — A partnership that has lasted over three decades is coming to an end at the Milwaukee County Zoo. The non-profit, Ocean Connections will be leaving the zoo in early December.

The group provides forever homes to both seals and sea lions.

“There are people that will never see these animals out in the wild, and that means a lot to us,” Ocean Connections Founder Shelley Ballmann explained.


Ballmann started Oceans of Fun in 1991 at the zoo, which then turned into Ocean Connections in 2018. The facility is currently home to two Seal Lions and two Harbor Seals. Diego, Reese, Satara, and Scooter are trained and taken care of each day by Ballmann’s team.

She says the decision to retire the facility at the zoo is devastating.

“It’s heartbreaking. We spent 32 years educating generations about marine mammals, our footprint, the impact you have on their future. And so to say goodbye to all of that is devastating.”

TMJ4 Reporter Megan Lee at the Milwaukee County Zoo

She says saying goodbye to the place she loves, the people she loves working with and the animals she adores is going to be hard come Dec. 3, 2023.

Ballmann says the pool is 38 years old and in need of many repairs, including a leak that impacts the quality of water for the seals and sea lions.

“It needs to be painted, it needs to be resurfaced, there is work that has to be done when you have a saltwater environment,” Ballmann explained.

TMJ4 Photojournalist Jeremy Dunk at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

She says the repairs are crucial for the quality of life for these rescued and no-releasable animals. “Unfortunately, the zoo did not prioritize this, they did not allocate money towards it, and without the allocation, we can’t continue to keep marine animals here.”

The zoo declined an on-camera interview but provided us with a statement saying,

“The expense of renovations to the pool and surrounding facility in which Ocean Connections operates is far more than the zoo’s budget can accommodate.”


Ocean Connections has a little over two months to educate and make memories for families in Milwaukee. Families like the Hebl’s come to the zoo about twice a week and today was their first time at the interactive Ocean Connections show.

“It’s sad knowing it’s not going to be here, you always just think it’s going to be here because you see it all the time. But ya know, things have to be, and I’m glad we got to see it while we did,” Matt Hebl said.

The zoo says there is no plan for the future of the marine facility. As for the animals, Satara, Scooter, Reese, and Diego will find new homes at the non-profit's sister facilities.


“The animals will be okay because they are our priority and no matter what we will take care of them,” Ballmann explained.

December 3 is the last day the facility will be open to the public.

Statement -Oceans (2) by TMJ4 News