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Hugging A Seal

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Volunteering | Mammals

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


It’s such a heartwarming sight to the guests watching a seal training session. An Aquarium of the Pacific trainer is sitting next to a seal giving the animal a hug while it places one of its flippers on the trainer’s lap. This trained behavior may look cute but it serves an important purpose in caring for our pinnipeds.

One of the behaviors that I am currently training one of our female harbor seals, Shelby, is a tactile behavior that I refer to as “Hugging a Seal”. In this behavior I place her on a rock and then sit down next to her, placing one of her flippers on my lap while placing one of my arms around her body. Its sounds like a simple thing to do but in reality it takes a lot of trust and training between trainer and animal to accomplish. Shelby is one of the original Opening Day seals and she and I go way back. Over the years we’ve built up a lot of trust. In the early days we used to keep the seals focused on a target pole while we did tactile behaviors with them. Last year I began working with both of our female seals, Ellie and Shelby, to be able to do tactile behaviors without the need of them keeping their noses on a target pole. This led eventually to the hug a seal behavior that some guests see during Saturday presentations. This behavior actually is meant to be used as a husbandry tool by a trainer to carefully handle and inspect the body of a seal without putting any undue stress on the critter.

With my long relationship with Shelby, it didn’t take long to fine tune this behavior after which I started to have other staffers give her a hug. This allowed the seal to get used to different people next to her. As an added benefit, it also allows for some cute photos to be taken. I guess you can call them seal huggers.

Hugging A Seal
Part of Shelby the harbor seal's tactile training involves having various staff members sit next to her so she can get use to having different people near her. Here Aquarium staffer Melissa joins the ranks of the Seal Huggers.  | Hugh Ryono

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