When Cruz, the blind California sea lion pup who arrived at Shedd in mid-December, hears trainers gathering nearby, he porpoises around his pool in eager anticipation of the upcoming training session.
Kelly Schaaf, manager of sea lions and birds of prey, opens the gate to the pup’s behind-the-scenes habitat and, shaking a rattle-tipped target pole in front of him, guides him out of his pool, across the floor and up a low, wide stair-stepped platform that he has learned to climb. Now positioned in front of her, the lively little sea lion is ready for his “tactile” lesson.
“One thing that we focused on right away was establishing a trusting relationship with us, which included getting him used to our touch,” Kelly said before the training session—conversations stop during training so Cruz can focus solely on his verbal and other audial cues.
She continued, “The most important thing with all the animals is getting them comfortable with us doing body exams, allowing us to touch them so that we can take care of them.” When Cruz arrived, as a rescued wild sea lion, he was skittish about being touched because he couldn’t see the trainers’ hands coming. As they do with all new experiences for any of the animals, the trainers began slowly. Because Cruz knew they were next to him, he was comfortable with a trainer placing her hand on his back. He was most nervous about being touched on his chest, so they progressed to his sides and flippers next, building his comfort level and his trust until he allowed them to touch his chest.
Each baby step of the way, Cruz received positive reinforcement with a short tweet on the trainer’s long, silver whistle, followed by tasty herring and capelin. That was part of his training, too.
“One of the initial things we did was teach him that the whistle means ‘good job’ and a fish is coming,” Kelly explained. “Shedd was the first place he had heard the whistle, so it was a new thing to learn.”
Positive reinforcement—a method of training that develops desired behaviors through praise and/or food rewards, making learning a positive experience—is the foundation of Shedd’s training programs for all of its animals.
Now Kelly lightly runs her hand down Cruz’s back, blows the whistle and gives him a fish. She gently touches his front flippers. Whistle, fish. Shoulders. Whistle, fish. Chin. Whistle, fish. She moves to his back flippers. Whistle, fish. He holds perfectly still. Kelly related that Cruz is so used to trainers manipulating his flippers that during a recent session, they were easily able to snip off the orange i.d. tag that had been placed on his left hind flipper when he was admitted to the Marine Mammal Center in California after his rescue.
As this part of the session ends, Cruz gets more fish. The approximately 60-pound sea lion has a healthy appetite. Because he is hand-fed during training, he had to learn to take fish gently. Now he knows that the trainer will hold his food close to his mouth, so he doesn’t grab for it.
Kelly and another trainer stand on either side of the platform to create a human guardrail as Cruz is guided with the rattle down the steps and over to the large floor scale for his daily weighing. Then Kelly, constantly shaking the rattle, leads him back to his habitat, up a ramp and to the edge of his pool.
“Swim!” Cruz plunges into the water. Kelly walks the perimeter of the roomy pool, shaking the rattle for him to follow alongside in the water. She stops intermittently to blow the whistle and give him fish. She ends the 15-minute session on a positive note, slipping the remainder of the fish in her feed bucket into his mouth one by one.
Kelly said that Cruz has done a remarkable job of acclimating to the two habitats he’s been introduced to. “He learned his way around each quickly. Swimming in a circle, he uses his body and vibrissae [whiskers] to measure the perimeter of the habitat until he seems to have a mental image of it. He navigates amazingly well, and he always knows what direction the water is in.”
What’s more amazing is how well Cruz has adapted to his blindness: Until he was about a year old, he could see. A gunshot wound destroyed his eyes. Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president of animal health, said, “He still has bullet fragments under the skin of his face. But they won’t cause a problem. Trying to go in and remove them would do more harm than good. The body will wall them off with scar tissue.”
Dr. Bill probably knows Cruz better than anyone at Shedd. He recently returned to the aquarium after three years as director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center. He did the initial exam on Cruz last summer when the injured pup was admitted to the center after being rescued from a Santa Cruz beach. “Cruz has a disability that will stay with him the rest of his life. But he’s a spunky animal with a lot of personality, and he’s adapting remarkably well.”
The trainers have had to adapt, too. “We constantly remind ourselves that Cruz cannot see anything. We can’t take for granted that he knows where we are,” Kelly said. “That’s why we’re careful to limit our conversations with each other when we’re working with him, because verbal and tactile cues are the only ways we can communicate with him. That’s how he gets his information. We continue to find creative ways to modify the things we do with the other animals—from feeding techniques to moving him from one place to another—to set him up for success.
“He’s a confident little guy, and he’s doing great.”
Read more about Cruz and Shedd’s other rescued sea lions. Shedd Aquarium’s sea lion rescue and rehabilitation efforts are funded in part by Exelon Corporation.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor