Archive | October 2011

The Importance of Zoos and Aquariums (a 2010 article from the Orlando Sentinel)

SeaWorld is more than just a marine park......It does it part, like many other zoological facilities to help wildlife and educate the public about them.

In response to the recent lawsuit PETA (hate that group by the way!) has filed against SeaWorld over the keeping of killer whales in their care, I have decided to post a one-year-old article that Ocean Embassy vice President, Mark Simmons wrote for the Orlando Sentinel about the true inner workings of zoological facilities regarding their role in saving wildlife while educating others in the process. I have read it several times and it’s amazing to see how zoo professionals are doing their part to make a difference in our world today and you should read it and apperciate the great works that facilities like SeaWorld, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and others do on a daily basis. Enjoy and you are welcome for sharing this article:

“Look at good Works in Rating Captivity’s Ethics”

By Mark Simmons, Vice President  of Ocean Embassy on March 12th, 2010

The recent tragedy at SeaWorld, beyond the grieving of a community over a whale trainer’s death, has stimulated discussion about captivity.

Anti-captivity groups have called for the release of Tilikum and the end of SeaWorld. They have likened the most advanced zoological facility in the world with prison and named SeaWorld, and in effect all U.S.-permitted and fully accredited zoological institutions, as money- hungry profit-mongers.

However, monetary interest in captive animals is not exclusive to zoological parks. The groups calling for Tilikum’s release raise money on the same public display of animals. Their business model is well-refined: They raise more in donations with the least cost of marketing on captive dolphin and whale issues than any other single issue.

Is profit a dirty word when it comes to conservation? Studies on environmental movements have linked conservation to prosperity. They reveal that we concern ourselves with conservation only after our basic needs are met, i.e. when we are prosperous. As individuals, we intuitively know this to be true.

Zoological institutions are no different than individuals in regard to the relationship between conservation and prosperity. As a professional community, zoos and aquariums have funded more than 3,700 conservation projects in more than 100 countries and spend nearly $70 million each year on conservation initiatives, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This is possible not only because they possess the knowledge, but because they have the financial capacity.

In contrast, anti-captivity nonprofit organizations don’t spend enough on helping animals or their ecosystems. They do not pay taxes on the money they raise, and a large percentage of their proceeds go to salaries, advertising and lobbying activities.

Who is the more responsible corporate citizen?

In 1998, Ocean Futures Society, the Humane Society of the United States and Earth Island Institute attempted to release Keiko (of Free Willy notoriety) to the wild. During this release campaign, they raised more than $20 million in tax-free donations and produced several documentary films.

As concluded in a scientific report issued by U.S. and Greenland authorities, the Keiko release project was a failure. After only a few weeks on his own, he sought out human contact and exhibited nuisance behavior following boats and looking for handouts. Keiko died of pneumonia in 2003. The experiment was perhaps the most compelling case of animal exploitation in history.

The argument against captivity seeks to isolate zoos and aquariums from all other forms of animal use in society. The importance of animals in our society and the plight of quality zoological facilities cannot be so easily reduced to catch phrases like “prison” or “life in a bathtub.” Trainers are not wardens, and the animals are provided the best care in mental, physical, social and environmental stimulation. They are given the highest quality of nutrition and medical care and a clean, hazard-free environment.

Conversely, animals in the wild face ever-increasing threats from toxins, depleted food supply and a degrading habitat. They are forced to travel farther and farther to find sustenance.

At least 19 species have been saved from absolute extinction by zoological institutions, including black-footed ferrets and California condors. In many tangible ways, SeaWorld and other leading zoological parks are modern-day arks.

It has been said that awareness and the emotional motivation to act are the greatest conservation challenges of our time. About 175 million people visit zoos and aquariums in the United States every year. When the day comes that the oceans are clean, food sources are abundant and society can act as one in the preservation of wildlife and their ecosystems, then maybe we will not need the constant reminder or the sanctuary that zoos provide.

Until then, there are few organizations — for profit or not — that reach as many people and animals as this important social institution.

Link to Original Article:

Animals in human care, whether if it's a killer whale, a lion, or lemur, are ambassadors to their wild counterparts.


Let’s Talk About Marine Mammal Enrichment

Receiving Enrichment is part of any captive animal's life and it can benefit them in a positive way.

Enrichment is the act of providing stimulating and challenging environments, toys, and
activities for animals in zoological facilities. This is very critical to the animal’s well-being as having
their own right to both food and medical care. It also promotes animals to perform their natural
behaviors that they would normally do out in the wild like diving and exploring and it keeps them both
mentally and physically fit.

See some examples of animal enrichment:

For seals at the New England Aquarium, their enrichment is of soft, long ribbons, fish, ice, water, and pet toys. Trainers and volunteers would decorate the pet toys by stringing up the large ribbons into each hole. For some of the toys, they would just tie a single knot at the sides.

Killer whales at SeaWorld love to play with balls, barrels and disks. When the large objects are in the pool, the whales will push them around like crazy. However, they love it the most when the trainers are playing with them. This enrichment is also provided to various marine mammal species at other marine life facilities too.


At some marine life facilities, marine mammals like Winter, are provided their very own floating bed!! The animals love to lay on them. Some, like Winter prefer to swim around on it while others, will just rest on it.

I hope this guide on enrichment will help you out on the purpose of enrichment for marine mammals in human care and what various toys they are given. However, but you must keep in mind that before any object is given to the animal, veterinarians must evaluate them and determine if they can be given to an animal.

Big thanks to Kelly Leigh Anderson-Ahearn  for giving me this idea on writing a blog entry that focuses on enrichment and different examples of certain marine mammal enrichment. Thanks again Kelly.




Marine Mammal Training: How it’s Done

People have interacted with animals and have modified their behaviors for more than thousands of years. However, the training of marine mammals is relatively the most recent concept of animal training and care.

While people have been training animals for thousands of years, marine mammal training is still new in the world of animal training. This site will focus on how dolphins in human care are trained.  Dolphins and other marine mammals in captivity are trained for a different number of reasons other than to perform in animal shows. First and foremost, one of the main goals of marine mammal training is to promote animal husbandry. This concept focuses on medical methods and practices that are used to monitor the health of captive animals. Trainers have structured routines that would allow them to maintain animal health through observation and medical examination. Secondly, Another purpose for marine mammal training is to promote physical and mental stimulation. When animals do physical training sessions for at lest three times a day, they are getting exercise out of these sessions and it keeps them both in fit and healthy throughout their lives. Finally, one of the main reasons why marine mammal training is important is because researchers are just beginning to understand both the needs and capabilities of marine mammals and other marine life we all share this planet with. By observing and communicating with them, both researchers and trainers alike are understanding the secret lives of these amazing animals by understanding how they think and adapt in this ever changing world. Marine mammal training has it’s benefits for the animals and the people who learn and care about them each day that may help those who study them find a way to one day protect their wild counterparts for generations to come.

Dolphins and other marine mammals in captivity are trained for a different number of reasons other than to perform in animal shows. They may include the following: Physical Stimulation Cognitive (Mental), Stimulation Medical and Husbandry Applications, Research and and Educational Applications

It can take several years to build a trusting relationship with any marine mammal weather if it's a dolphin or and orca. I am seen trying to build a trusting relationship with AJ, a 23-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin at Dolphin Research Center during a "DolphinLab" program in 2009.

To successfully train an animal to do behaviors successfully, the trainer must build a long-term relationship with the animal they are about to train for such behaviors. These relationships can take many years to build up thus, it also involves building trust and cooperation in the process. Every animal the trainer works with has a very different personality comparing to the previous animals they had worked with in the past. So, building an human/animal relationship can be very challenging.

Now, here is some behavior modification and training terminology that should be learned when reading up on animal training:

Some animals, like orcas, for example can learn by observing the actions of their pod-mates. (Photo of Trua is by yours truly, Jenna.)

  • Behavior: Any action that the animal does or response to a stimulus.
  • Operant Conditioning: Behavior is determined by its consequences.
  • Stimulus: A change in the environment that produces a behavioral response.
  • Non-Reinforcement: Non reinforcement occurs when the target behavior is exhibited and there is no response from the environment. These acts produce neutral results and bringneither rewards nor punishment.
  • Reflex: Unlearned, involuntary, simple responses to specific stimuli.
  • Animal Intelligence: The ability of an animal to process information is based on it’s brain anatomy as well as the experience the animal has.
  • Learned Behavior: A permanent change in behavior as a result of experience.
  • Observational Learning: Occurs with no outside reinforcement. Animals simply learn by observing and mimicking.

Training rewards are not limited to just food like it was in 1950's and 60's. As recently as the 1980's, training reward practices have been updated to include enrichment, and rub-downs.

Every Training session, show, or dock and in-water interaction session may involve the six main training tools.

  • Target
  • Whistle
  • Food
  • Symbol
  • Hand
  • Bucket

No form of training is done by force. In fact, it's impossible to force any marine mammal to perform any task for you. All training methods are based on positive reinforcement.

  • Bridge and Targeting: Shaping of behavior through use of tools that specify exact location and timing of desired behavior.
  • Targeting: Pinpoints critical location or point of the behavior.
  • Bridging: Pinpoints critical timing of peak of the behavior.
  • Behavior Chains: A series of functionally related behaviors that when grouped logically, lead to the desired end-point behavior.

It's quite amazing to see how cetaceans in human care can simply perform a certain behavior just to receive an enthusiastic reaction from their trainers without ever getting fish after that because for the animals, it's simply just for the fun of it. However, if the trainer does not react, then the animals will not perform.

  • Positive Reinforcement:The Presentation of something pleasant or rewarding immediately following a behavior.
  •   Negative Reinforcement: A particular stimulus is removed after a behavior and causes the behavior to increase as the result.
  • Continuous Reinforcement: Every task or target behavior is paid the same.
  • Intermittent Reinforcement: Reinforcing only a fraction of the target behavior.
  • Fixed: A set amount of reinforcer for a set amount of tasks.
  • Variable: A random amount of reinforcer given in a random way.
  • Discrimination: The tendency for learned behavior to occupy in one situation, but not in others.
  • Extinction: When a behavior is not reinforced, it decreases. Eventually, it extinguishes all together. It is also a technique to eliminate all undesired behavior.

In order for a dolphin like Winter to learn and understand new behaviors, she must learn them in a step by step process.

In Addition to training methods that are all based off positive reinforcement, animals learn various behaviors in a step-by-step manner that may take a expanded period of time.

  • Time Out: Cessation of stimulus or response from trainer for some interval of tim. The Trainer’s place during an animal training session may involve understanding Individual personality characteristics, awareness of animal capability and limits (cognitive and physical) and sensing the animal’s mood.
  • Shaping: A Process in which a behavior is learned in a step-by-step fashion.
  • Approximation: Every step in a learning process that leads to a final goal of a trained desired behavior.


“Dolphin Tale” Puts The Incredible Works of Marine Life Facilities In the Spotlight

Sully, an orphaned pilot whale from Curacao who was rescued by the Dolphin Academy in 2009 and was deemed "non-releasable" after it was determined he could not survive on his own. He was adopted into the SeaWorld family at it's sister park in San Diego, California in 2010 where he currently resides. He's a testimony to SeaWorld's commitment to helping rescued and orphaned animals get a second chance at life. Photo by SeaWorld.

Since last week’s release of Winter’s movie Dolphin Tale, marine life facilities around the world, including Clearwater marine Aquarium and SeaWorld, have been given the long overdue attention and critical praises they deserve. This is because of their extraordinary work to use their wildlife expertise to rescue, rehabilitate and release animals in need.  Not so many people know this but in fact, SeaWorld’s rescue team was the first to rescue Dolphin Tale star Winter in Mosquito Lagoon Florida nearly six years ago from crab trap entanglement.  However, Winter and Sully are not the only animals who owe their lives to incredible workings of zoological facilities.  In fact, they respond to thousands of animal rescues each year ranging from injured pelicans, to  orphaned marine mammals, to cold-stunned sea turtles. Here is are two examples of some amazing animal rescues performed by zoo professionals:

Saturn, endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle rescued off Cape Cod Bay in 2010. Photo By the New England Aquarium rescue team

Rescued in Dennis, Massachusetts in December 2010, Saturn the sea turtle was cold-stunned and was suffering from severe pneumonia. As a result, she was admitted to the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital in Quincy, MA. There, she was treated for recurring pneumonia and her case led to multiple biopsies and CAT-scans over a seven-month period. Her last CAT-scan in June revealed that the pneumonia had cleared up. She was released off Cape Cod on August 13th, 2011.

Mystic Aquarium's latest rescue, a blind harp seal pup.

In August 2009, a juvenile harp seal pup was sent to Mystic Aquarium for rehabilitation after it was determined that he was less alert and responsive. There, he was treated for stomach problems that were related to him eating rocks; he was also treated for both skin and eye-related problems. However, further exams on his eyes concluded that he had suffer from a birth defect that caused him to be blind and his blindness was not treatable. As a result, the pup was deemed “non-releasable” by the US National Marine Fisheries Service. He was moved to the Detroit Zoo in December of that year where he currently resides.

These, like many other animal cases are very unique and it allows the rescue staff to learn about them, and even help save their species from extinction.  No rescue, no case is ever the same. Anytime and anywhere a rescue team will be there anywhere both in good times, and in bad times.