Wednesday, November 07, 2007
One of the pleasures of working with Parker the sea lion on a weekly basis is that he always tries so hard to please. He is the aquatic equivalent of a Golden Retriever. Ask him to salute and he almost knocks himself out cold with his flipper as he hits his head way too hard. Prompt him to retrieve an object from the pool and he may try to bring back a feather, or an 8 foot by 4 foot raft! He’s even given a salute so enthusiastically from the raft in the exhibit that he ended up falling backward off of it. Most guests know Parker as the sea lion that hangs upside down in the water eyeing visitors as they walk along the underwater tunnel through the pinniped exhibit. He’s endeared himself to quite a few kids as he sometimes interacts with them from his watery home, turning circles while following a child’s hand.
During our Saturday husbandry crew lunch breaks at one of the Pike’s eateries, the discussion almost always turns to the latest “Parker Moment”. There’s usually a new one every week. A particularly funny moment occurred a couple of Saturdays ago when Parker and Ellie the harbor seal were asked to retrieve at the same time and pursued the same ball floating in the exhibit. Their noses touched the ball at the exact same moment. While Ellie was all serious at pushing the ball back to me, her efforts were counteracted by Parker pushing the ball in the opposite direction toward his trainer. I could see Parker’s eyes looking back with an expression that I could only interpret as “I’m trying to bring the ball back—but what do I do now?” I busted up laughing and I’m sure the audience watching was wondering what was so funny. At the end of all this Ellie won and Parker went off to find something else to bring back to his trainer.
Parker, being a young male California sea lion, is starting to get the characteristic Sagittal crest bump on his forehead indicating that he is beginning to enter adulthood. I’ve worked with Parker every week since he was a young pup so I’m use to calling him the “Little Man”, as opposed to his exhibit mate Miller who we call the “Big Guy”. Well the little man is not so little anymore. One day when I had Parker standing up against the cliff façade next to me I was shocked to noticed just how tall he’s gotten and how much he is beginning to look like Miller. In fact, some of the marine mammal staff has started to call Parker the “Medium Man” because of how much he’s grown and because a younger and smaller sea lion, Odin, was recently introduced to the exhibit. But as big as he’s grown, Parker still retains a little man’s voice when it comes to his vocal command. This is a behavior where the animal is asked to vocalize much like asking a Golden Retriever to bark. However, when Parker first learned to “speak” on command, he was a young juvenile and could only give a little raspy growl-like bark. Although he is now quite capable of giving a loud adult sea lion bark, he still speaks with a pup’s voice when asked. Miller, on the other hand, has a bark that can actually be heard from across Rainbow Harbor. How do I know this? I was visiting Shoreline Village one morning and heard a sea lion bark. Not seeing one nearby, I then realized that what I was hearing was Miller barking during one of the pinniped presentations. Well when you follow that big booming bark during a presentation with Parker little raspy growl, it can be downright embarrassing—lovable, but embarrassing.
It’s always fun to work with Parker. We sometimes use him to surprise kids that are watching the presentation from the Plexiglas wall on the upper level that overlooks the water. Thinking that they are well above the action, they get wide-eyed when we send Parker, an expert rock climber, up the side of the cliff facade next to the glass, putting the kids eye to eye and inches from a California sea lion. It’s also fun to use Parker to play a little prank on unsuspecting trainers. The Little/Medium Man has an impressive pillar behavior where he builds up a lot of speed and then shoots vertically out of the water several feet. When he comes down, he causes quite a splash. If you time the pillar behavior right, you can have him soak a trainer walking by. It gives everyone a good laugh and another “Parker Moment” to remember.
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