Yaku_Sea OtterAt 80 pounds and 4 feet, Yaku is the big guy in Otter Cove. He’s also the only guy, an arrangement he seems to like.

Yaku was born at the Seattle Aquarium in 2000 and came to Shedd a year later. Like all of Shedd’s sea otters – and marine mammals – he was enrolled in our award-winning training program from Day One.

Sea otter pups rank way up there on the cuteness scale, and the adults display their playful natures as they somersault in the water, inch along on land, or tug at trainers’ boots during sessions. But as they reach maturity, these deceptively large animals with sharp canines and crushing molars become unpredictable. In fact, before Shedd demonstrated otherwise, most aquarium professionals dismissed these frisky, feisty marine mammals as untrainable.

Several times a day, the training sessions – held in the sea otter habitat, in their reserve pool and in the hall in between – give the otters mental stimulation, physical exercise and the behaviors to cooperate in their own healthcare so that, whether it’s a routine exam or an emergency, the animals can be cared for quickly, safely and effectively.

But for the otters, these sessions are all about fun, reinforced with edible rewards, verbal praise and other positive reinforcement. With a short attention span, the otters keep the trainers on their toes devising new amusements. In fact, the trainers refer to long lists of daytime and nighttime toys that they use in rotation to keep things lively. During the day, the otters might get so-called “feeder balls,” which have holes for hiding frozen treats to dig out. Other edible “toys” include crabs and jello. More conventional playthings include basketballs, slides, children’s plastic furniture for romping over, under, or through, and extra-durable dog toys.

They also get scents. Indya Watts, a marine mammal trainer and lead of the sea otter team, explains, “We take food extract and mix it with water and spray it on their toys.” Current scents include orange, mint, lemon and almond. “It gives them a variety of things to smell,” Indya says. “And while it’s not something they’d encounter in the wild, they would encounter a lot of smells. Introducing scents on a toy is something new and exciting for them to investigate.” She adds that some of the otters don’t like the scents and snort their noses at the toys.

Nighttime playthings are placed in the exhibit to occupy busy paws when trainers aren’t watching. “These are toys we trust the animals with all the time. They won’t destroy them.” The otters love anything that floats, including plastic cutting boards and their “cheese” – a piece of yellow hard plastic that they can bat around.

Lisa Takaki, director of marine mammals, says that Yaku is super curious and loves all the toys. “Since otters are so strong, we have to be careful about what enrichment items they can have,” she adds. “Yaku loves the fake kelp bed, which is made of car-wash strips. It’s practically indestructible.” The donated “kelp” is one of the nighttime toys. “In the wild,” says Indya, “sea otters use kelp to sleep in at night so they don’t drift away.” Yaku also loves a raft that the trainers made from a fire hose, another almost indestructible material.

But the young male’s favorite activity is chasing the younger females, Mari and Kiana, around the habitat. Be sure to visit the otters soon to watch all the fun. 

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor