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The Seal with Abilities Beyond Her Disabilities

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Volunteering | Mammals

Thursday, August 30, 2007


I first met Ellie the harbor seal a few weeks before the Grand Opening of the Aquarium of the Pacific in June of 1998. Back then she was an active animal who could leap out of the water like a sea lion. Named after an East Coast Socialite, Ellie was also very gentle when it came to working with her trainers and volunteers. Being very patient with beginners, she would calmly take a fish from a person’s hand, taking great care not to accidentally taste a finger in the process. If she did happen to touch a finger with her teeth, her mouth would gently pull away in a lady-like “pardon me” manner.

One of her favorite activities in her younger days was retrieving objects tossed into the water. She used to put up quite a wake as she enthusiastically swam back to return a ball or ring to her trainer. She really seemed to enjoy the retrieval sessions.

When advancing age started to rob her of her eyesight about 5 years ago, we stopped asking for the retrieval behavior as she could no longer see where the object was tossed. We also started to use a target pole regularly to help guide her around the exhibit. A target pole is a narrow piece of PVC pipe with a pool float on one end that an animal is trained to “target” on (in the case of a seal, to touch its nose to) when asked. Keeping her nose targeted on the pole, the blind seal could be led around safely by her trainer. We were, in essence, acting like her seeing-eye dog.

Ellie’s training sessions became less active and more based on husbandry behaviors used to check over an animal’s health. Extending a flipper, showing her belly, or opening her mouth became the main behaviors asked for. It was sort of like acknowledging that these were the rocking chair days for the now elderly seal.

Then one day earlier this year, Ellie would show us that she had abilities beyond her disabilities. This past spring, just as I was about to begin a training session with Ellie, I accidentally dropped my target pole into the water, just out of my reach.

“Oh Shoot!” I said out loud.

Well, Ellie must have thought I had given her the old command for retrieval (which was the word “TOY!”) as she immediately went out to where the pole was and brought it back to me. Needless to say, I was shocked! How the heck did she find it? My curiosity aroused, I asked our assistant curator, Rob, if I could try to bring back her old retrieval behavior and he gave his OK. He thought it might provide good mental stimulation for her.

As I started to work with her, I began to realize just how Ellie had tracked down the pole. Not being able to rely on her eyesight, Ellie would listen for the splash of the object entering the water. That would send her off in the right general direction. When she got close to the area of the splash, she would spread her sensitive whiskers wide and feel for the water ripples caused by the object hitting the surface. That would help her zero in on the item to be retrieve. Seal whiskers are very sensitive and there have been studies done on how they help them find prey even in murky conditions by feeling for the disturbances in the water caused by fish movement.

Every Saturday during my shift, we worked on the retrieval. It didn’t take very long to bring back and fine tune this behavior.

During one recent training session, Ellie’s retrieval ball was already floating in the water out of my reach. On a whim, I asked her to retrieve and then threw some of the ice cubes that we use to keep her fish bucket cool, into the water to produce a path of splashes that Ellie could follow to the ball. She found it easily.

Modified with a new command (FIND!) and with specific instruction to the trainers on how to help the her find the object (make sure to throw the object so that it makes a BIG splash), the behavior has returned to Ellie’s regular repertoire. The retrieval behavior itself seems to act as an enrichment benefit for Ellie, making her more active and stimulated. It brought play back into her day.

Just goes to show that you should never underestimate anyone’s abilities just because they have a perceived disability. Animals, just like people, are quite adaptable if given the chance.

The Seal with Abilities Beyond Her Disabilities
Using her hearing and sensitive whiskers, Ellie is able to find a ring that was tossed into the exhibit.  | © Hugh Ryono
The Seal with Abilities Beyond Her Disabilities
Ellie brings the ring back to her trainer. In this case, Aquarium vet-tech Colleen.  | © Hugh Ryono

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Kathy T

Thursday, August 30, 2007 06:57 PM

Dear Hugh:

Your writing sounds pretty close to how you speak so I feel like I’m sitting next to you as you tell me what’s been happening.  Good work!

Hugh's avatar


Friday, August 31, 2007 06:15 AM

Hi Kathy,

Thanks for the kind words. My writing style is probably a holdover from my scriptwritng classes at Long Beach State.


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Jenny Theodorou

Friday, August 31, 2007 04:53 PM

You brought back so many memories. Thanks for the update and I am so glad to hear that Ellie is doing well. I have to say though that my heart has always been with SHelby.

Hugh's avatar


Saturday, September 01, 2007 12:22 PM

Hi Jenny,

You’ll be happy to know that your favorite harbor seal Shelby is doing fine.  In fact, she has a new admirer in the exhibit.  Our new male harbor seal, Troy, has taken a liking to Shelby and follows her around a lot.


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