Training and Play
Sea otters dig into snow to find tasty treats. A sea turtle climbs onto a scale to be weighed. And with a simple hand cue from a trainer, a 2,100-pound beluga whale positions himself for a mouth exam. These scenes—and more—happen at Shedd all the time, part of our extensive animal training and enrichment programs.
What’s enrichment…AKA play?
Enrichment is anything that provides an animal with additional mental or physical activity. For the dolphins and whales, that means sturdy toys they can push around. The sea otters might get a pile of snow in the winter. And the octopus receives a treat hidden in a puzzle it has to open. Enrichment complements natural behaviors.
“Our goal is to make the otters’ training as engaging and fun as possible!”Christy Sterling, supervisor of marine mammals
Why is training important?
At Shedd, training is the most important part of our animal care program. Training builds a trusting relationship between the animals and the people who care for them. It provides the animals with mental stimulation and physical exercise.
They also learn and practice behaviors that help them participate in their own health care. By familiarizing the animals with the activities and sensations of eye exams, blood draws and ultrasound scans, these and other procedures can be carried out safely and efficiently, whether it’s for a checkup or urgent care.
After successfully completing a requested behavior, a beluga whale receives fish, a rub on the melon, or verbal praise as a reward, a method called positive reinforcement.
Training is all about succeeding. If a dolphin doesn’t respond to a behavior cue, she doesn’t get a reward. Instead, the trainer immediately asks for another behavior the animal knows well so that a reward can follow and the experience is positive.
Not just for marine mammals
Shedd staff members conduct training sessions with our sharks, turtles, monkeys, penguins, birds of prey, octopus, skunk and more. You can see training in action during our aquatic presentations.
Giant Pacific Octopus
The giant Pacific octopus receives a "prey puzzle"— a container that she has to take apart to get the food inside. The challenge is similar to what she'd experience searching for food in the wild. A team of aquarists provides this intelligent and dextrous invertebrate with enrichment through training sessions, puzzles and toys.
Green Sea Turtle Nickel
Weighing large turtles like this used to be a difficult project requiring many people. Using positive reinforcement training, this turtle learned to crawl up a ramp and onto a scale at the top of the habitat, making regular weighings and exams easy and safe for all.
Like Shedd's other animals, the sharks are trained to make caring for them easier and more efficient for both them and the aquarists. This zebra shark has stationed at a specific place in her habitat to be fed, ensuring that she gets the portion of food measured specifically for her.
Shedd's pioneering training program for sea otters has been a model for other aquariums. These high-energy marine mammals were once considered untrainable. By using positive reinforcement and keeping sessions fast-paced, varied and always fun, the trainers can cue trained behaviors important to the otters' health and well-being.