June 16, 1958, summer about to open wide, spill children onto the streets. Near woody Springbank Park in London, Ontario, PUC workers checked barricades and applied paint. Security slipped up, and he slipped out. He made his way to the nearby Thames River and out to Lake Erie. On June 20, a reward was offered for his recapture. The Americans finally caught him on June 26, off Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.
They brought him to the Toledo Zoo for safekeeping, where he became the center of an "international incident" ("Hold Slippery in U.S.")
Back in London, the fairy tale castle at Storybook Gardens, a children's theme park, awaited its first visitors. Slippery, a one-year-old sea lion (Zalophus californiaus), was expected to be a popular attraction at the park's small zoo. But no one had anticipated the publicity he would, in fact, bring.
His escape quickly became front-page news in the Canadian city, and the local newspaper, The London Free Press, offered $200.00 for the seal's safe return. Sightings were diligently reported, and a photograph of the seal at large appeared on the front page on June 21. By June 24, both Slippery and his stay-at-home companion, Lonesome, had developed a fan club ("Slippery Saga..."). Meanwhile, Storybook Gardens, about to stage its grand opening, announced plans to purchase a replacement.
Phil Skeldon, a Toledo zookeeper, finally captured the seal on Lake Erie with the aid of a tranquilizer gun; back home the Free Press announced "Slippery Surrenders!" with a bold banner headline of the sort usually reserved for the end of an armed conflict. Almost immediately, a problem arose. Skeldon claimed the seal would continue to reside at the Toledo Zoo. "We caught him in American waters," he said, "just like you would catch a fish"("Captor Refuses..."). Londoners were outraged. Wire services, charmed by the tale's absurdity, picked it up, and suddenly the seal, the zookeeper, and the small Canadian amusement park were international headlines.
While there seems to be no truth to rumours that park staff staged the escape-- it is extremely unlikely they would have risked letting Slippery swim freely in the Great Lakes-- the "International Incident" regarding where Slippery would ultimately reside was, in fact, staged, an impromptu prank that Storybook Gardens hoped would generate interest, and which the Toledo Zoo and the mayors of the two cities gladly joined. All abandoned the publicity campaign the next day, after the zookeeper received threatening calls. But the nascent park received more publicity than it ever could have purchased.
Slippery returned to a hero's welcome, and became a popular attraction. After his death in 1967 at the age of 11, Storybook Gardens erected a statue to commemorate its most famous resident.
Other monuments testify to Slippery's appeal. A children's book about the events, The Day Slippery Ran Away was published in 1959, written by Earle Beattie and illustrated by Robert Tingley, aka Ting, who had helped design Storybook Gardens and would go on to become one of the most widely-recognized political cartoonists in twentieth-century Canada. In 1995, historian Christopher Doty produced a made-for-television documentary film, Slippery.
In 2003, Storybook Gardens underwent substantial renovations. The new additions included a waterpark, Slippery's Great Escape. They still keep sea lions, and a cartoon Slippery continues to act as the park's mascot.
"Blinding shield of rain hides Slippery in Ohio." The London Free Press Monday June. 23, 1958. A1.
David Bradley. "Sea Lion reaches lake, London to buy another." The London Free Press. Friday June 20, 1958. A1.
"Bring it back alive, earn yourself $200.00." The London Free Press Friday June 20, 1958. A1.
Christopher Doty. Slippery.
"Expect Slippery home soon." The London Free Press Saturday June. 28, 1958. A1.
"Hold Slippery in U.S.: Captor refuses to hand over sea lion." The London Free Press Friday June 2, 1958. A1.
Patrick Mahoney. "Slipper Seal lives on." "Slippery's escape still raises questions." The London Free Press Wednesday June 25, 2003, B1.
"Slippery Seal gives sea lion big fan club." The London Free Press Tuesday June 24, 1958. A2.
Storybook Gardens Homepage. http://www.storybook.london.ca./
John Matyas. "Storybook Memories." The London Free Press Monday June 23, 2003.
Cal Mistele. "Slippery Surrenders! Wanderer coming home from Ohio port." The London Free Press Thursday June. 26, 1958. A1.
"Where am I?" The London Free Press Saturday June 21, 1958. A1.