Thursday, August 13, 2009
One of my newer duties at the Aquarium of the Pacific is to work with the sea otters in their home in the Northern Pacific Gallery. As I build my relationship with the otters and learn more about their personalities, I am beginning to interact with them using some of the more important husbandry behaviors that allows the staff to check over the animals health. Husbandry behaviors are behaviors that are taught to an animal to allow their human caretakers to monitor their health without causing undo stress.
Just like with the seals and sea lions that I’ve been working with the past 11 years at the Aquarium, I have to build up a trusting relationship with the sea otters, getting them used to having me working with them. The otters really have to trust you to allow you to perform a tactile examination on them.
One of the first behaviors that I learned to work with our female otters Brook and Summer was, what looks like to Aquarium guests watching from outside the exhibit, a simple petting of the animal. This is actually a very important tactile behavior that the otters are taught that allow us to run our fingers through their fur feeling for any abnormalities. It looks simple but it is a highly trained behavior. An untrained otter can react like a cat to a person stroking their fur. One minute they’re as calm as can be and the next they’re biting your hand to let you know that they want you to stop. This would not be a good thing with a 40 pound animal that has extremely sharp teeth and powerful jaws that can crack through the hardest mollusk shell. Even though I’ve done a lot of tactile behaviors with the Aquarium’s pinnipeds (including the big guy Miller the sea lion weighing in at over 600 pounds) and trust them and my skills fully, I must admit I was a bit nervous the first time I held Brook’s dainty little paw in my hand.
Tactile training is important because it allows the staff to do thorough sophisticated physical examinations or procedures on the otters such as using a stethoscope to monitor their heart beat or opening their mouths to check out their teeth when asked. The otters will even allow the staff to brush their teeth as needed and give them a vitamin filled smoothie via a syringe daily.
On a more personal note, it is kind of a neat feeling, running your fingers through an otter’s fur, especially when they’re dry. It feels kind of like stroking a fluffy cat’s fur except its just a lot thicker.
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