Beluga playing with inflatable ballCome to Jazzin’ at the Shedd to see things you wouldn’t during regular hours! Like pool toys—very sturdy pool toys—in the Oceanarium habitats.

"One of the things we do for the animals at night is enrichment," says Ken Ramirez, executive vice president, animal programs and training. "During the day, we focus on training and personal interactions. At night, when we go home, we put enrichment items"— toys—"into the habitats for the animals to play with."

Large balls, floating plastic cutting boards, boat fenders and purple car wash strips might look out of place in the carefully re-created Pacific Northwest coastal habitats, but they’re pulled from several species-specific "toy boxes" that contain items chosen or devised to allow each group of animals to engage in natural behaviors. "Animals have to figure out puzzles as they hunt or forage in the wild. So we create games and toys that allow our animals to do that," Ken says.

Enrichment items can range from simple things you wouldn’t notice, such as chunks of ice, with or without food frozen in them, to "things we purchase at Toys R Us and convert."

Prey puzzles are popular with all the Oceanarium animals. In addition to freezing krill, fish, or other tasty items in ice cubes, trainers take various sized hard-plastic balls and lengths of PVC tubing (which are proven to be impervious to strong teeth and jaws, as well a sharp beaks) and drill holes in them, then fill them with food. These "feeder balls" and other items can be manipulated—with paws, mouths, or melons—to get the goodies. Some animals wait for the food to fall out, while others speed the process by throwing the toys.

Beluga playing with another inflatable toyAnything that floats is fun. The belugas like buoys, balls, Frisbees and "noodle" pool toys, which they steer around the pool with their heads (with the younger whales swiping from each other). They also play a game of pushing the noodle deep under water to see it pop back to the surface. Some of the belugas never tire of this amusement. Ken says, "If nothing interrupts the animals—training, divers, or social activity—we have seen games with enrichment go on for hours."

The belugas and dolphins put those of us with opposable thumbs to shame as they adeptly move toys through the water balanced on their heads, backs, pec fins, or tails.

The sea otters enjoy white plastic cutting boards and a blocky piece of yellow hard plastic the trainers call "cheese." They love to carry these items on their chests, although sometimes they also bounce or pound them on the wall or rockwork. Because the sea otters are so skilled at taking things apart, their toys fall into daytime (supervised) and nighttime (unsupervised) categories. "Nighttime toys are those we trust the animals with all the time," says Lisa Takaki, director of marine mammals. "The otters can’t destroy them. But we do check each toy when we remove it from a habitat to make sure it hasn’t been damaged."

Car wash strips are also favorites of the sea otters and the belugas, but for different reasons. The belugas love everything tactile, so they swim through the long, heavy strips, rubbing their skin as they go. For the otters, however, the purple and green strips are the next best thing to a kelp forest. "They crawl into them at night and groom, and they rub their backs on the strips and get their fur nice and fluffy," Lisa says. The strips are donated, and she notes that while kelp isn’t naturally purple, the otters don’t prefer one color to the other. (Sea otters have limited color vision. They can distinguish between the purple and red urchins they are fed, and in that case, they like the purple better.)

Sometimes enrichment can be as simple as water sprayed from a hose. Both the penguins and belugas enjoy this simulated rain.

So when you come to Jazzin’, be sure to visit the Oceanarium, which is open until 8 p.m. You don’t want to miss this glimpse into the marine mammals’ after-hours playtime.

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor

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