How to Train your Seal (or Sea Lion)
When spectators watch Tommy the California sea lion “salute” during one of the ABQ BioPark’s daily feedings, they might not realize how much work goes into a seemingly simple gesture.
BioPark zookeepers work with the seals and sea lions daily—using fish as a reward—to teach them a variety of behaviors. Some behaviors come quickly, while others can take years to perfect.
“You have to inch your way toward everything,” said Valarie Chavez, senior zookeeper. “It can be a long process.”
For instance, keepers taught Tommy to “salute” (Tommy touches his flipper to his head) in several steps. First the trainer taught Tommy to touch his flipper to a target stick. Then, the trainer slowly moved the target stick closer and closer to Tommy’s head—eventually Tommy was able to touch his flipper to his head on his own.
The BioPark is home to one grey seal, three harbor seals and one California sea lion. The group members boast a variety of trained behaviors, including presenting their belly, going to their crate, coming when called, presenting their flippers for a nail trimming, waving, holding a fish, allowing trainers to brush their teeth, staying on command, getting on a scale for weighing and more. Feisty, the BioPark’s newest harbor seal, came to the zoo with a list of around 30 trained behaviors, which he performs perfectly.
Each day at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. the seals and sea lions show off a handful of these skills during a public feeding/training session.
While the behaviors look like fun and games (it’s difficult to deny the cuteness of a waving seal), many of their skills are beneficial to both trainers and animals alike.
For instance, some of the seals and sea lions receive a daily eye drop and the animals have been taught to present an open eye so they can receive their drop. The command takes the stress out of the procedure and speeds things up.
In addition, teaching a harbor seal like Gracie to cooperate for an ultra sound ensures her safety (it allows keepers to perform this type of procedure without using anesthesia, which can be risky for these marine mammals—they actually stop breathing when they are under).
Chavez said the connection between an animal and trainer is integral to training success.
“The bond that the keeper has with the animal is so important,” Chavez said. “You’re able to do so many more things when they trust you.”
She also said it’s important that trainers maintain consistent rewards and rewarded behaviors.
Because most of the training is food-based, trainers use the animals’ main diet of herring (with some capelin or mackerel depending on season). All animals have their own unique likes and dislikes, however, and each diet is specific to the individual (Lady, the zoo’s lone grey seal, only likes herring).
BioPark zookeepers have a couple advantages when it comes to training the zoo’s seals and sea lions—not only are they intelligent and curious, but they’re all extremely mellow and amiable.
Nonetheless, trainers have to adjust to different personalities during training.
For instance, harbor seal Baby, who is very food-motivated, is exceptionally cooperative.
At 42, Lady is one of the oldest grey seals in any zoo or aquarium. Having hit her golden years, she’s pretty carefree.
Tommy, the youngest of the group, can be a bit more challenging.
“He’s like a teenage boy,” Chavez said. “He’ll test keepers to see what he can get away with.”
- Tommy loves to play Frisbee. He has several, but they have to be pink. He’ll fetch a thrown Frisbee and toss it back to the keeper.
- Divers go in to clean the pool, which is salted, once a month in winter and once a week in summer.
- The pool is kept at 62 degrees in summer. In the winter, the BioPark lets it go down to lower temperatures—these animals are from the chilly waters of the Atlantic, so the cold doesn’t bother them.