Thursday, October 13, 2011
A Baby Sea Otter's Unique Way Of Doing Things
Most of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s sea otters either lay on their backs or their bellies when eating on deck. That is all except Ollie. Ollie has a unique way of dining out of the water. She will actually sit upright on her rear end with her legs out when she’s receiving food from her trainer. It looks like a little kid sitting on a lawn during a picnic. It’s such a cute pose that mammalogist Megan, with a small bit of prodding from me, has worked to capture it as a trained behavior. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Ollie the Otter it is that she does many thing in her own style…even eating on deck. Ollie does so many things in her own unique way that the mammalogists and volunteers that work with the sea otters have come to refer to these random moments as “Ollie being Ollie”.
When we train our animals we use positive reinforcement to encourage the behaviors that we want our critters to perform. The first thing the animals learn is something called a bridge, such as a whistle or a verbal “good!”, that is paired with a food reward. We can then associate the bridge with positive acts by the animals to shape behaviors that we want. We usually use baby steps when we train a new behavior such as toy retrievals. To train a behavior we break it down into many smaller parts. And then teach each one separately, later stringing the individual tasks together to form the complete behavior. In the case of retrievals we first train the animal to hold and give the toy back when asked. It’s only later that we work on getting them to seek out the toy to retrieve.
In the case of a “captured” behavior the animal may be doing something already by itself that we’d like to have them do when asked. Since the animal already knows that the bridge means that they did something we like and they’ll get a reward for it, the trainer just has to be alert for the animal randomly doing the behavior they want to capture and then bridging it when they do. Later the trainer can add a visual or verbal cue that will ask for the behavior from the animal when desired. That’s how Megan is capturing Ollie’s “sit” behavior.
One little addition to the behavior that I’ve asked Megan to add is to have Ollie hold a plastic cup while sitting. I actually got the idea from working with the “Furball”. The Furball, aka Gidget, was the first orphan baby sea otter that I’ve ever helped raise. She and I have a great relationship. One day I handed her a cup with clams in it while she was floating on her back in the water during a training session. Instead of reaching into the cup to get the clams out she “sipped” the clam into her mouth like she was drinking tea. She would then hand the cup back to me seemingly asking for another round of clams.
I thought that the visual of Ollie sipping a cup similarly while sitting up would be a precious image. It would be “Tea Time for Otters”. Well Ollie did just as we hoped last Saturday, albeit for just a few seconds, and “sipped” the food from the cup to her mouth. It was just long enough for volunteer trainer Robin to capture it on camera. Of course Ollie had to add in her personal touch at the end by tossing the cup away after she was done. It was just Ollie being Ollie.
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