Thursday, October 11, 2007
Outweighing the other animals in the exhibit by several hundred pounds and with a big Klingon Warrior-like bump on his head known as a sagittal crest, Miller the California sea lion stands out from the other animals in the exhibit. He’s probably the most impressive sight a visitor will have when walking through the seal and sea lion tunnel as he swims by.
Miller began life as an orphan pup that washed ashore in San Diego during the early 1980s. Deemed non-releasable after rehabilitation, he was adopted by a Gulf Coast marine mammal company that trained him to perform in aquatic shows.
I’ve known Miller since the days I used to watch him perform in the sea lion show at a theme park in Orange County in the mid 1990s. His performances and interactions with the public were quite memorable, especially the day when I was picked out of the audience to go up and meet with him in person during one performance. Back then it never occurred to me that one day I might be working with the same big lovable critter that was giving me a kiss and offering me a flipper amidst the roller coasters and themed rides.
When the park closed the sea lion show in September of 1998, Miller was nearing the end of his showbiz career. His eyesight beginning to fail due to aging, he could no longer keep up with the younger sea lions in the cast. Fortunately, the Aquarium of the Pacific offered the then 18 year old sea lion a new home. With a much lighter schedule and ten times more room than he had at his old facility, his new home was like a resort for the veteran pinniped. He was also treated like a star at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Being such an intelligent animal with an impressive resume of behaviors, there was quite a strict prerequisite for anyone that wanted to work with the Big Guy. There were three levels of testing that a volunteer had to go through to be a “Miller-Person” (aka one of his trainers). Miller 101 dealt with basic manners training such as station keeping (feeding the Big Guy in one spot) and hand targeting (having him touch his nose to your hand). Miller 102 had the volunteer working husbandry and logistical behaviors like lying down for inspection or following the trainer through the exhibit. There were also some basic show behaviors such as a salute or wave that were introduced to the trainer at this level. Miller 103 involved the more complicated behaviors that required an experienced trainer such as a front flipper walk, holding an object in his mouth or a ball balance and roll.
The reason for the different levels was because Miller is a very intelligent animal. We used to joke that Miller would actually work at molding new trainers so that he could get them to ask for only the behaviors he wanted to do that day. He would essentially be training the trainer. On the other hand when he was paired with an experienced person, he acted like a real professional and would do the behaviors exactly to criteria. Because Miller is so well trained he is the animal that most people get to experience in the sea lion encounter program offered by the Aquarium.
Miller is a lot older now and reaching the elderly portion of his life. We don’t ask him for the more strenuous behaviors anymore, such as a front flipper walk, to put less stress on his body. However his mind is sharp as a tack and he is still quite the professional when working with his long time trainers. Recently I took Miller over to meet with a visiting newspaper reporter and his photographer during a morning session. In this interaction, the big sea lion was precise in his behavior, staying attentive and doing the behaviors asked for perfectly. Ever the professional, Miller seemed to know that he was on a public stage and gave one of his better performances. He made my job easier as I could talk with the reporter while knowing that the Big Guy would back me up when I needed him and would pose smartly for the photographer when asked.
Miller has endeared himself to tens of thousands of people over his career. That’s one of the reasons why the Aquarium held a special birthday celebration for the elderly marine mammal earlier this year that was covered live by a local television station. He’s touched a lot of lives. For me, the Big Guy has enriched my experience at the Aquarium of the Pacific over the past decade. That’s what makes him such a special sea lion.
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