Thursday, November 04, 2010
In Nature documentaries when a researcher wants to physically examine a large wild animal like a lion or bear you often times see them shoot a dart containing a sedative to immobilize the creature or physically restraining them with nets or ropes. Why? A wild animal wouldn’t naturally trust a human being opening their mouths or manipulating a leg for an examination. To do so without restraint or drugs would be extremely dangerous for the researcher.
Marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and sea otters also don’t naturally take to people physically handling them either. Here at the Aquarium of the Pacific however, we have the opportunity to build a long-term relationship with our animals. This allows us to gain the trust of the animal and train them to be calm during a physical examination. These husbandry behaviors are some of the most important behavior that we train our animals to do. This “tactile” training allows the staff to closely examine the animals on a daily basis. You may see a mammalogist opening the mouth of a sea lion; hold the rear flipper of a seal or the paws of an otter for an examination. It even allows our vet to come into the exhibit to look over a critter.
Some of our animals, like Shelby the harbor seal, have built up such a trust in our staff that they will even allow us to brush their teeth! But to this husbandry volunteer, one of the best side benefits of building this personal trust with a seal like Shelby is that you get to give them a hug every now and then. It’s all part of tactile training for the benefit of our marine mammals.
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