#92: Painting Pinnipeds

Painting is one of my favorite things to do with the seals. Each painting is unique and we like to figure out what different paintings look like. Check out this example of one Chacoda did that resembles a man diving. This is a video of one of Lana's recent painting sessions. The paintbrush fits into a red holder that she bites on to. I ask her to "take" the brush holder and then "paint."

Here's the finished masterpiece:

What do you think it looks like?




#91: Toothbrushing 103: The Sonicare Brush

While Chacoda was regularly having his teeth brushed with the rotary toothbrush (and really great at it too), we noticed that there was some plaque build-up on his back teeth that, while not bad, just wasn't budging. So this past month I introduced Chuck to the Sonicare toothbrush with the hopes that it would just blast that plaque right off.

As you can see from this picture, the Sonicare brush is overall much larger, has a head that is similar in size to the manual toothbrushes, but what you can't see is that it vibrates significantly more than the rotary toothbrush (it will vibrate the toothpaste right off).

Since I have never used a Sonicare brush myself, I tried it first (when it was brand new and clean) so that I would have a better idea of what Chuck would be experiencing. Let me tell you, that brush makes your mouth tickle! I also learned from those that have regularly used this type of brush that it can cause some gum sensitivity in the beginning.

Taking these two things into consideration, I chose to start with Chuck's bottom teeth and only when he was very comfortable, move on to the top. My thought was that this would allow Chuck to become accustomed to the sensation of the brush, while minimizing any mouth sensitivity he may experience.

So far it's working well. As of today, Chuck will allow me to continue to brush his top teeth with the rotary brush while brushing his bottom teeth with the new Sonicare brush! Chuck is actually getting pretty comfortable with the new Sonicare with toothpaste!



#90: Wild Harp Seal Visits Downtown Boston

The New England Aquarium is monitoring a marine mammal visitor today! A juvenile harp seal (Phoca groenlandica) has hauled out on one of the docks in Boston harbor and appears to be resting comfortably. It is normal to see these seals in our area at this time of year. The Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Team observed the seal this morning and found the animal to be "BAR." In clinical terms that means Bright, Alert and Responsive--a good thing if you're a harp seal. The seal is plump and has no obvious signs of injury.

It will be allowed to rest comfortable but will be checked from time to time by the Rescue staff to be sure. Harp seals are born on pack ice in the Maritime Provinces and are quite accustomed to the frigid temperatures. These seals will wander in their first couple of years of life and it is not unusual to see them here during the winter months. Harp seals in New England are mainly seen alone and not in groups. In fact the Rescue department has already had multiple calls about ice seals (which include harp and hooded seals) throughout the Massachusetts coast this year. Most of the time when these animals haul out they do so on pack ice or in snow in and around the various harbors and inlets. Seals are also semi-aquatic which means they do spend time out of the water and it is not unusual for them to spend up to 72 hours or more out of the water.

If you come across a harp seal hauled out, it's important for the safety of the seal and its admirers to maintain a minimum distance of 150 feet. Seals are a protected species so maintaining a safe distance isn't just about safety, it's also the law. Here's a slideshow of our new harp seal friend taken by Aquarium educators.

(The information in this post comes courtesy of Adam Kennedy and Connie Merigo from the New England Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Team.)



#89: Toothbrushing 102: The Rotary Toothbrush

The harbor seals have been comfortable getting their teeth brushed with a manual toothbrush for some time, so now we're introducing a rotary toothbrush. This battery-operated toothbrush has a smaller head that quickly rotates in circles. We share a couple of brush bases, but as you see in the picture, everyone has their own brush head. The letters on the heads tell us whose toothbrush it is. For example, "CA" stands for Cayenne.

Having a toothbrush that moves on it's own takes some getting used to. We took it slow, but as you can see from the picture above, 6 of the 7 seals are using the rotary toothbrush for some or all of their toothbrushing. Here is a video of Cayenne getting her teeth brushed with the rotary toothbrush - if you listen carefully you can even hear the sound of the toothbrush.



#88: Exhibit Makeover Update 3

Our last exhibit construction update was on November 21, 2008 when the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center (MMC) looked like this:

It is now two months later, Kathy's elbow sports the same jacket and we have climbed to the roof of the aquarium for a "bird's eye view" :

The circular area is the shallow addition. Young seals spend time romping around in the shallows, and even the old timers may enjoy lolling around here.

This view includes the deeper section of the exhibit and the outline of a visitor path on the right:

Here we are looking north. The roof covers a behind the scenes are for the animals, a kitchen to prepare food for the seals and a place to store wet suits, dry clothes and trainers:

I'll post another update in a month or two. For now, we want to give a big shout out to the construction crew who keep smiling despite the bone chilling cold of the last few weeks. While it's possible that their faces have permanently frozen in that position, we'll just keep thinking they're looking forward to the day when animals, visitors and staff are enjoying the new exhibit.




#87: Blondie Has More Fun

In a previous blog you saw Blondie the lumpfish learn how to do a spin. This time I have trained her to swim through a hoop! When you watch the video, see how I lead her through with food in the beginning. She seems a little hesitant, but with quick reinforcement she becomes very comfortable fast.

Then, I introduce the signal for her to come through--motioning "come here" with my finger, but with her reinforcement still visible in my other fingers. She catches on so fast, she even swims back through the hoop to the starting point! In the end, I don't have any food in my fingers and she swims through with the signal alone. I promptly reinforce her with a "jackpot" (LOTS of those tiny shrimp), to tell her what a fantastic job she did. Stay tuned for more fish training...



#86: Come To My Window (My 2nd Behavior)

Not too long ago I told you about the first behavior I trained with Smoke. Now that Smoke's inverted bottle behavior is solid, I moved on to Lana, Smokey's partner in crime. For my first behavior with Lana I chose one where she goes to the exhibit's window on cue. We figured it would be a good one because it allows visitors to get a closer look at the seals.

Before training the new behavior I came up with a training plan. Training plans include what you want your finished behavior to look like and the steps, or approximations, that you will take to reach your goal. In Lana's case, I wanted her to go to the window in the exhibit and touch her nose to the glass while also putting her flippers on the window. And here's the hard part...She has to hold that position until I bridge (see Erin's previous blog about training terms), by saying the word "good".

In this video you can see the steps (approximations) I took to reach the finished behavior:

At first I had to get her going to the window on cue. Next I increased the amount of time she was holding at the window. After that I reinforced when her flippers touched the window while she was holding the position, until eventually she would automatically put her flippers on the glass right away. Next we worked on holding that position for up to 10 seconds. The last step was getting her to go to the window from a far distance. All in all it took 1 - 2 months to train this behavior. I wonder what I'll try to train next ...




#85: Mirror, Mirror On The Wall ...

Not only does it look like Trumpet and Cayenne are looking at their reflections, but this mother and daughter pair strike the same pose!




#84: Cold Tsunami

Sunday January 11th was another wintry day in New England. We accumulated a couple of inches of snow overnight, but it was still business as usual at the New England Aquarium. I had our teen intern Katie filming one of our training sessions to help me track Lana's progress on a new behavior (stay tuned for that) and this is what she caught.

What you don't see in the video is that Lindsay is to my right. Reggae startled and sent a wave of tsunami-like proportions upon us and got Lindsay even worse than me. When I looked up Lindsay was dripping from head to toe ... soaked!

Getting wet is all part of the job for a marine mammal trainer (check out this previous post from warmer times), it's just a little less enjoyable when the temperature is in the teens and it's snowing out. At least we can laugh at ourselves.



#83: Tooth Brushing 101

In a previous post, I showed you a visit from our veterinary dentist Dr. Laura LeVan. What do you think we do with the seals between visits from the dentist? We brush their teeth!

Everyday we brush the seal's teeth to prevent plaque, gingivitis and fish breath. We use regular toothbrushes from the grocery store and special malt-flavored toothpaste made for dogs and cats. (We did a number of taste tests and the malt flavored was the preferred choice for the seals - even over the seafood flavored!) We also have a mouth rinse that is applied directly to their teeth and gums. We haven't been able to teach them to gargle.

Our Sunday volunteers Katie and Janine show the seals' mouthwash, toothpaste, and toothbrushes.

Training one of the animals to sit comfortably while we brush their teeth may sound a little hard to believe, I can assure you all of the seals are great with it. Check it out!




#82: Seals in the News

The Trainer for a Morning program is perfect for anyone interested in becoming a marine mammal trainer, learning more about harbor seals, or just for a great close-up experience with the animals.

Check out the video of our Trainer for a Morning program featured on WHDH.




#81: Just Another Day at the Office

Rochelle and I were the only two trainers on last week. With seven seals to feed you might think it would be difficult, but this is where those name targets come in handy. Each of us did two sessions with five seals at a time, which allowed the other trainer to focus on two. It was enriching for both us and the seals; you will notice that Rochelle and I didn't always feed the same animals or even line them up in the same order, but by using those name targets we were able to keep the five seals together calmly and give everyone the attention they deserved.

Here is Rochelle with (starting from the top) Trumpet, Lana, Smoke, Reggae, and Amelia.
Can you find all five targets?

In this picture I am working with (from the top) Cayenne, Chuck, Smoke, Reggae, and Lana. With the other four seals focusing on their name targets I am able to give Smoke some of her daily eye drops.

I wonder what today will bring?




#80: New Year's Resolution

Now that 2009 is here, many of us are hoping to keep our New Year's resolutions. One popular resolution is to be healthier, either by quitting a bad habit or trying to eat better. The New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center is scheduled to open this year so fitness is on the minds of many Aquarium staff. The animal training staff is no exception and we vowed to be more active in 2009. If we just did some of the behaviors that the seals do everyday, we would be making a good start. So here are a few examples of some seal behaviors that we thought we would try.

Smoke's inverted bottling behavior looks very similar to Justin's headstand...

... and when Rochelle sits down to give Amelia the signal, they can do sit-ups together!

Of course, there's nothing like dancing to get everyone moving!

So what do you like to do to stay active? Be sure to check back to see what new activities we are trying out and how the new exhibit is coming along.
Happy New Year!




#79: Training in New England

Here are perfect examples of a beautiful New England Day. Still interested in working with the seals? Our marine mammal staff have the opportunity to be outdoors in all types of weather. New Years Eve 2008 is definitely one for us to remember and to utilize all those extras layers that you may have seen in the previous post Winterize Me.