It was a cold Sunday Morning in Boston on February 28, 2010 and my mother took me to the New England Aquarium so that I could do a “Trainer for a Morning” program. In this program, I could work along with the trainers during training sessions with fur seals and harbor seals. I was very excitedabout spending time with the animals and looking forward to every moment with them. When my mother and I arrived at the main entrance, it was crowded with both couples and families who came to the aquarium to see all of the animals that lived there. As I was waiting for the trainer to take me in for the daily session, I could not stop thinking about some of the activities I was going to do that involved animals. As I waited for my session to begin, It was just beginning to dawn on me on why marine mammal training is very important.
It was about 9:02 AM and a male trainer has arrived at the main entrance to take me in for the daily session. The trainer’s name was Justin and I had met him before almost two years early.At the time, I was doing a job shadow for my high school sophomore economics class. Seeing Justin again was great and was looking forward to spending the morning with him and the seals. So, after meeting Justin in the main entrance, we went into the aquarium. There, we met up with another seal trainer named Patty and off we went into the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center, anopen-air exhibit that housed fur seals (as of 2011, this exhibit now includes two juvenile female California sea lions who were rescued off the coast of California).
When I got to the Marine Mammal Center, I was just very impressed with how well-complex it was. The pool was partially shallow, and yet, it was large and wide enough for up to 10 seals to call it home. As I walked on to wooden platform, two fur seals named Issac and Cordova swam near the platform like they were being very curious about us. Cordova would constantly yell like a man as if she was saying hello to everyone. Erin told me a story about the time when Cordova was yelling so loud,that someone thought there was a crime going on the Aquarium so, they called the police. When the police did arrive, however, it turned out that there was no crime going on and it was just Cordova’s vocals that triggered the false alarm. Her Seattle Aquarium-born friend Issac, on the other hand, was a quiet and yet,a mischievous seal who is known for his fine-tune behaviors such as a head shake, his purr-like vocalizations, and sticking his tongue-out to the crowd. Cordova and Issac were two of five northern fur seals to call the New England Aquarium home.
The same time I was introduced to the seals was when the training session began. The session consisted of trainers interacting with the fur seals by doing various activities with them that were all based on their different needs. Just watching the seals interact with their trainers was such a sight to see. Erin had me use a target pole for Cordova. From the moment she got on the platform after Erin gave her the signal, Cordova mastered aiming at the target not just one, but twice. It was like she knew her stuff. For example, if you had the target on your hands, Cordova will come to you right away. She was pretty studious for a seal who loves to vocal. Issac, however was not quite sure about the target. But, after only a few seconds, he simply placed his nose on the target and got it right. I guess it took a little bit of encouragement to find his inner studious-side. Soon after that, Cordova gave me a kiss on the nose that lasted for an estimated ten seconds. That was such a fun session with the fur seals.The session lasted for about an hour.
Following my training session with Cordova and Issac, Justin brought me into the fish room where I learned about how the diets are set up for the animals. For example, the harbor seals will feed on mainly herring and caplin while the fur seals will feed on a combination of both fish and squid. Each diet was set up to meet each animal’s needs depending on their health, age, and gender. After talking a little bit about the food preparations, Justin asked me if I would like to add some vitamins into the gills of the fish and I did not hesitate to say“yes”. This is because in all of my years I have gotten to work with animals, I have had a chance at preparing diets for them. So, I got myself some gloves and started to add the vitamins into the gills of the fish. The vitamins are used to held the animals get their nutrients while keeping them healthy at the same time. It took an hour to fill all the fish with vitamins; but, it was all worth it because part of a trainer’s job is to prepare the diets for all of their animals.
After doing some food prep for the seals, Patty called me over to make some enrichment toys for the seals. 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 while it keeps them both mentally and physically fit. The seal enrichment was made of soft, long ribbons, fish, ice, water, and pet toys. I would decorate the pet toys by stringing up the large ribbons into each hole. For some of the toys, I would just simply tie a single knot at the sides. While I was making toys for the seals, I was beginning to picture how the seals would react to the toys the next time the seals have another enrichment session with the trainers. I would think that maybe the seals might be curious about them before starting to play around with them. After I got the last toy all decorated with ribbons, Patty called me over to the freezer where the toys that were already made were stored for the next session. That was when, we made our way to the harbor seal, which was outside of the building.
As we made our way to the harbor seal exhibit for the play session, I could not stop thinking about the reactions the harbor seals would have the moment they first see the toys. The session was consisted of two attempts. The first attempted was to do the play session through the exhibit’s glass windows. This is in which the window to the seal exhibit and would allow us to drop the frozen enrichment into the water without having to sit on the platform. However, after about five minutes and with the large of visitors watching on, the seals showed no interest in coming towards the window to play with the enrichment. So, we pulled it out and decided to perform our second attempt, which was to do it within the exhibit. As I laid down on a soft black mat, I tossed the enrichment into the water in hopes the harbor seals would show signs of being interested. Then, all of the sudden, Amelia, one of Aquarium’s seven harbor seals came close to the enrichment and began to play with it. For several minutes, Amelia would attempt to get the fish out of the icy block by sticking her teeth to ice as if she was trying to grab on. Then, an elderly seal named Smoke began to play with the ice block. As the ice began to melt, she and Amelia would attempt to grab on to the enrichment and by the time it melted away, both females had a few bites of the fish and no longer showed any interest in the enrichment. After the play session was over, Erin brought over a male harbor seal named Ragaee for a quick hands-on session. I got the chance to feel his wet fur by rubbing his stomach. His fur felt so wet and slimy. Then, I leaned down once more to get a nice big kiss from Ragaee. It was such a nice kiss on the face that, I jokingly exclaimed that I would never want to wash my face again because the moment to me, was very special. Soon after that, our my session with the seals was over and believe me, it was the best morning ever. I felt like that I had a great experience with all of the animals at the Aquarium on that cold February morning. It was such a great day at the aquarium and I would love to visit again.
In the end, when I think of that day, I begin to think about how and why working with marine mammals in captivity is very important. 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 allowthem 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.