Sea lion Tyler is a stand-out character in the already outstanding A Holiday Fantasea.

In fact, he just might upstage Santa with his expanded repertoire of natural behaviors that includes a front flipper stand and a stand-and-wave posture that will have you applauding this 375-pound pinniped with the thundering baritone bark.

Tyler, who zestfully throws his weight into everything he does, loves to learn new things, says Kelly Schaaf, manager of the sea lion area and one of Ty’s trainers. Some of his training sessions are purely practical, such as learning a behavior for voluntarily taking part in routine medical procedures. Others are for exercise and enrichment to keep the sea lion physically and mentally fit. In the latter category was the preparation for his appearance in the current aquatic show.

Kelly worked the front flipper stand behavior into Tyler’s training for several years. “It’s a common sea lion behavior,” she says, “but like a human gymnast, he had to train for it, little by little building the strength in his front flipper muscles.” After he mastered what is essentially a push-up, Tyler learned to bring up his rear end at the same time by touching a hand-held target with his hind flippers. The next step was to reinforce him when he balanced on his front flippers, first for a split second, then one second, two seconds and so on. “We did it in baby steps,” Kelly explains.

Tyler the sea lion waving to the crowdTraining also includes steadily building Tyler’s confidence and comfort level on the walkway. “Like a lot of other animals, Ty doesn’t like the flash of cameras,” she says and reminds everyone that guests are asked to turn off the flash function during the show. This is especially important for Tyler because he is blind in his right eye.

Kelly says, “Lights, people standing up, or anything else sudden can surprise him, so we stay aware of what is happening on his blind side.” During shows, Tyler works with trainers with whom he has a long relationship. Kelly, who can’t stop smiling as she talks about Tyler, is one of them.

Tyler was born at SeaWorld in San Diego in 2001. He spent his first four years in a Navy program in San Diego, but he got the equivalent of a medical discharge due to his limited vision and found a new, welcoming home at Shedd. In addition to enjoying him in the aquatic shows, you might also see him doing training sessions in Whale Harbor or swimming in the sea lion habitat. He also has access to three reserve pools and the medical pool, giving him variety in pool size and shape. Never one to loll around, he loves porpoising out of the water as he swims. Typical of younger sea lions, Kelly says, “He likes to expend a lot of energy.”

To support all that activity, Tyler eats about 25 pounds of food a day, during four to seven training sessions, including A Holiday Fantasea. Herring is his absolute favorite fish, but he also enjoys capelin and squid. “He likes to play with the squid,” says Kelly. “He chomps on it like it’s bubble gum. It’s really chewy.

“Another thing he loves, one of his favorite things,” she continues, “is Jell-O. He swallows large chunks of it whole.” Tyler gets unflavored Jell-O, either plain or with fish in it, for enrichment—something fun to do—but it’s also a good source of water for him.

In reinforcing Tyler’s confidence on the walkway, Kelly is also moving him closer to meeting guests during presentations. The sea lion is already comfortable with one-on-one encounters with guests behind the scenes. In the last five years, he has delighted hundreds of people, including Shedd trustees and visiting VIPS, with a fishy “kiss” on the cheek. Kelly’s training goal is to get him accustomed to greeting guests in the more active environment of the amphitheater.

“It’s fun to see the light bulb go on when he knows that he’s on the right track with a behavior,” she says. “From then on, he’s a quick study. And he really enjoys it.”

Many lightbulbs will go on Christmas Eve when Tyler does another favorite behavior, bounding out of Whale Harbor and up the amphitheater steps to pull a rope, illuminating the Abbott Oceanarium and lighting Santa’s way to all the animals at Shedd.

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor