Sea otter training sessions at Shedd engage these marine mammals’ equally active minds and bodies.

Using positive reinforcement, our trainers channel the otters’ high energy into important husbandry behaviors: stepping onto a scale to be weighed, moving from one habitat to another and even holding still—not something that comes easily for a sea otter—for a close examination. But to the otters, it’s all play.

One kind of training, called an interactive window session, is also fun for another group: you and me.

“Interactive window sessions are a way to engage people on the public side of the exhibit,” says trainer Lana Vanagasem, who is the manager of sea otters, penguins and dogs.

It’s a simple setup. During a recent session, as curious guests watched, trainer Christy Sterling, the supervisor of otters and penguins, stood on the rock ledge inside the sea otter habitat with rescued sea otter Ellie poised in the water in front of her. On the public side, volunteer Amanda Murphy stood at the window directly across from Christy holding a long pole with Ellie’s shape—the otter’s unique visual cue—at the end.

When Christy nodded, Amanda held the shape to the glass. Christy gave Ellie a hand cue that means “find your shape.” The otter swam across the pool and surfaced, and when she put her paw exactly on the spot where the shape was, Christy said, “Good!” Then Ellie returned to the trainer for a piece of clam, one of the many types of positive reinforcement the sea otters receive for successfully completing behaviors.

Upping the game—and the distance to swim—Christy moved to the center of the habitat, Amanda moved to the center window, and they repeated the activity. This time, Ellie swam halfway around the perimeter of the habitat, not straight across, to touch her shape, then circled back for her reinforcement. To keep things interesting for Ellie, Christy switched to other training while trainer Mike Pratt began a window session with Mari, one of the adult female otters.

While almost-2-year-old Ellie―the youngest of the sea otters at Shedd—has only been doing window sessions for a few months, 14-year-old Mari is an old hand at paw on the glass. “This training has been in progress since before I started working here 15 years ago,” says Lana. The beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions Ty and Biff and green sea turtle Nickel are also enriched through interactive sessions at their habitat windows.

Ellie only has to find her shape right now, but Mari is presented with more complex challenges. “We can technically ask the otters from any location, and they should be able to find their shape at any window,” says Lana. While Mike holds Mari’s attention, Amanda readies two poles with shapes attached, only one of which is Mari’s. Mike nods, Amanda raises the symbols, and Mari swims directly across and touches the correct one.

“Depending on how many trainers or volunteers are available, we can have both shapes at one window or a different shape at each window,” Lana says. “We could even have all five shapes”—there are five otters― “among the three windows. We could have two otters at the same time, or we could change the location to the reserve area or the pup pool. So we have many options for varying the complexity and enrichment factor of the sessions.”

The positive reinforcement is varied too. The trainers carry pouches of clam, shrimp, pollock, capelin and squid (all sustainably sourced). Secondary reinforcers involve motion, sounds, sensations and favorite treats. “We might clap for them, trickle water on them, or give them a piece of ice,” says Lana.

For a sea otter, Mari is pretty deliberate in finding her shape. “I think she looks directly across first,” says Christy.

“Then she checks each window looking for her shape,” Lana adds.

Training provides all animals in human care with essential mental stimulation and physical activity. Most important for a zoological setting, it also teaches them to participate in their own healthcare, giving trainers and veterinarians ready access to animals whether it’s for a routine checkup or an urgent procedure.

Shedd has applied the positive-reinforcement method to all incoming sea otters, beginning with the four pups rescued after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The program helps build a relationship between the animals and the trainers based on trust, with a big helping of fun. Shedd earned an award from the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA) for its sea otter training program.

“Our goal is to make the otters’ training as engaging and fun as possible,” says Christy. And interactive window sessions give our guests another window into the active lives of Shedd’s five sea otters.

You might enjoy these other sea otter blogs during Sea Otter Awareness Week, Sept. 24-30.

5 Reasons to Raise Your Awareness about Sea Otters

Group Training a Class Act for Sea Otters 

Toy Story: The Sea Otters’ Version

Sea Otters Take the Cake