One thing is for sure as we head into Sea Otter Awareness Week, the otter pups at Shedd Aquarium are darned lucky, but they’re not your ordinary sea otter. That is to say, they have all been rescued by The Animal Response Team due to conditions deeming them non-releasable by wildlife officials and spend their entire lives under the direct care of animal trainers at our accredited facility. They had to be taught to groom, swim, feed, and were slowly introduced to other sea otters – all crucial skills for survival that otters don’t know instinctually and are typically taught by their mothers. They’ve never really been and never will be wild otters.
Behavioral science tells us that most animals go through a critical period in their development called socialization. This is the period when they learn behaviors acceptable to other individuals of their species. That is why our training and enrichment programs are so critical. We expose these moldable young pups to behaviors that enable them to successfully take care of themselves and to be accepted as one of the group when introduced to the other otters. We also teach behaviors that allow us to provide them with the very best care. For example, at Shedd Aquarium, we can easily move any of our sea otters from place to place on the exhibit or even behind-the-scenes by simply having them follow a target. These behaviors teach them to cooperate in their own health care and enable the Animal Health team to do regular assessments and inspections. If we place the target high up on the clear acrylic barrier of the exhibit and the otter stands up, it allows us to examine all the paws and underside. It’s great for the animals, too, because all training is conducted like a play session, with food, toys, or verbal praise as frequent rewards and positive reinforcement.
Training and enrichment devices are also provided as part of the animals’ overall wellness plans. Maintaining a sense of well-being through physical activity and mental stimulation is critical to optimal health. For example, the otters have access to a one-of-a-kind puzzle specially designed just for them. Several years ago, working with a team of highly talented engineering students from the Robert McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, we designed a really cool way to engage sea otters at play and encourage healthy behaviors. We know that otters are great at manipulating things with their paws. They forage in kelp beds and tide pools, flipping over rocks and chasing their prey of muscles, crabs or urchins. Using this knowledge, the students and Shedd Aquarium staff implemented a permanent otter puzzle that can be modified to challenge the animals for a food reward. Two panes of clear acrylic have a series of designed openings that allow the otters to manipulate a ball between them using their paws much like they would during foraging. The path to success depends upon some moveable panels that create an ever changing maze to move the ball through until it exits on the otter’s side and rewards them with a tasty favorite treat.
Sea otters are incredible animals with high energy that requires lots of maintenance. They seem to always be on-the-go burning enough calories to require us to feed them about 30 percent or more of their body weight daily. The pups that live here are fantastic ambassadors for their cousins who live at sea and give guests the unique opportunity to experience, connect with and care about these charismatic animals. In addition, they enable us to better understand this species and what it takes to provide for them – wherever they live.
Training and enrichment are core duties of our husbandry teams and are not limited to the sea otters. On your next visit pay close attention and you may see a pigmy marmoset being asked to stand on a scale so we can measure her body weight, or a prehensile tailed porcupine saying “ahhh” so we can have a look at his teeth. And of course, you can see training in action at our aquatic presentation!