Born off the coast of California, Slippery the Sea Lion's first visit to his new home at Storybook Gardens was a short one.
Designed as a premier children's attraction, Storybook Gardens was built on the western edge of London, Ontario in early 1958. Its fairy tale motif included exhibits with the three bears, mice in a hickory dickery dock clock and a sea lion pool.
Unfortunately, construction on the Gardens had run behind schedule for its June 26th opening. When Slippery and his partner were dumped in the pool the railing had not been adequately screened in and a fence around the perimeter of the gardens was incomplete. On the morning of June 17, 1958 Londoners awoke to find Storybook minus one sea lion.
Over the course of the next 9 days Slippery swam down the Thames River into Lake St. Clair then continued south down the Detroit River into Lake Erie. By June 20th officials in Toledo, Ohio were getting calls that a sea lion was swimming around Maumee Bay.
"I said, 'It can't be a sea lion they don't even live in fresh water. Let me know if you see it again,'" recalls Skeldon. "And about half an hour later I got a call saying it was still swimming out there. I said, 'You're probably seeing a dog but I'll come down and take a look.' And so Danny Danford and I rode down there and, sure enough, we saw this sea lion."
Buoyed by a $200 reward offered by the London Free Press, Skeldon and a host of bounty hunters actively pursued Slippery along the Ohio coastline but with no success. The errant mammal successfully dodged his pursuers in his attempts to swim back to the Pacific Ocean.
"Another thing that amazes me about his trek is that, if you chart it, he couldn't have done a better job, stuck in the middle of this ghastly continent, of trying to get back to northern California," says Slippery biographer Herman Goodden. "He ended up in the Maumee River which runs through Ohio and peters out into Indiana. So he had the right idea but none the waterways in this damn continent would cooperate with him at which point he had to come back."
Londoners received the news with mixed feelings. Despite a rained-out opening, citizens flocked to Storybook Gardens to see the remaining sea lion which reporters had insisted on naming Lonesome. In an attempt to console the lonely critter, animal lovers across North American had been mailing her fish since Slippery's escape.
On the afternoon of June 26th Slippery was spotted sunbathing on a livecar near Cedar Point amusement park. Phil Skeldon quickly drove in from Toledo, armed with a tranquilizing gun.
"It was nicotine and it is very potent. This gun and the whole procedure was new so we had no idea really of what the dosage should be," says Skeldon. "Nicotine could kill the animal if you give it too much."
Skeldon scored two hits on Slippery and the animal appeared to be dazed by the drug But as the zoo keeper approached in a rented boat Slippery came to life and led his would-be-captors on a comic chase in front of a crowd of delighted onlookers. Disgusted, Skeldon returned to Toledo empty-handed.
But the chase wasn't over. The next morning Slippery was found snoozing in a near by boathouse. Determined to keep the animal for escaping, police ordered a noise ban in the area to keep the sea lion asleep. The tactic worked and Slippery was captured, but not before allegedly escaping from Skeldon one final time before voluntarily turning himself in. Slippery was taken to the Toledo Zoo where he drew record crowds during the July 4th weekend.
Jubilant London officials headed down to Toledo with the $200 in reward money. However, the media circus wasn't over yet. An editor at the Toledo Blade encouraged Skeldon to pretend he wanted to play "finders keepers" with Slippery. The stunt backfired when Skeldon's wife began receiving angry phone calls from neighbours accusing the zookeeper of poisoning Canada/U. S. relations. Skeldon quickly recanted and announced the animal would be returned on July 6th.
But what should have been a quiet London homecoming turned into a mob scene. An estimated 50,000 citizens - nearly half the city's population - stood by the roadside to witness a cavalcade of cars, trucks, bands and majorettes reunite Slippery with Lonesome at Storybook Gardens.
The end result was a marketing bonanza for Storybook that has lasted to this day. During the summer of 1958 more than 200,000 visitors passed through the gates. The number had climbed to over two million by the time of Slippery's death in January 1967. When Storybook Gardens was refurbished in 2003 Slippery became the official mascot of the gardens and Slippery's Great Escape splash pad instantly became one of the park's most popular features.
But the success of Slippery's escape prompted a small conspiracy circle about the incident. In 1958 Storybook was a considerable financial gamble for London and the Public Utilities Commission. Was it possible officials deliberately released Slippery into the Thames River as a publicity stunt. When questioned about it Earl Nichols, then vice-chair of the P.U.C., offered this cryptic remark:
"If I could have had a dream that the escape would mean a million dollars worth of publicity to Storybook Gardens I would have gladly thrown the sea lion into the river."