I’m not gonna lie — being a member of the Karen Pryor Academy faculty has its perks, and one of them is getting to visit an aquarium with Karen Pryor.
We started with an open boat ride across the Boston Harbor to the New England Aquarium, where I and three other faculty friends were to get into wetsuits and 58-degree water to perform with the Northern fur seals. We arrived late, however, and didn’t have time to change before the scheduled show. /sniff sniff/
We did get to see the fur seals work however, and Julie Shaw and Nan Arthur got to do some cuing with them. This was a new species to me — there are only 10 in captivity in the country, and 5 are at this facility. Northern fur seals are rather more like sea lions than true seals, with ear flaps and long, strong foreflippers. More on them later!
Then we went inside to watch some sea turtle training. En route, though, Karen gave a mini-lecture on fish species and good husbandry, pointing out how to tell if the captive animals were stressed or happy in their tanks (these were happy).
Then Myrtle the Turtle began her training session, and we stopped thinking about fish. Myrtle was working on target discrimination, selecting the all-white target from among black and striped variants. Myrtle has also contributed to turtle research, targeting underwater speakers to help determine the parameters of sea turtle hearing. This is important for practical purposes such as using pingers to warn away dolphins and turtles from tuna fishing nets, reducing what is politely called by-catch. Myrtle’s training is helping conservation efforts for her cousins in the wild!
Myrtle’s training also makes her less of a pest when divers are in her tank, as you can hear in this video of her target work.
The trainers also explained that divers use various sound targets to recall individual fish or species for feeding time, to customize diets and medications, but I was distracted by a gorgeous moray eel cutting across the training area.
Then we went to watch the harbor seals train. Sitting just inches away from Chacoda (affectionately known as “Charlie” or “Chuck”), I was struck by how much he reminded me of our late Rottweiler Inky. This was odd — why Inky, more than any other similarly structured predatory mammal? But then I learned that Chacoda was suffering from cataracts and was losing his sight, and it all made sense — Inky lost her sight, and her head movements were thus very similar to Chacoda’s!
Lindsay, Chacoda’s trainer, has been transferring his visual cues to verbal as his sight wanes, and he’s adapting very well.
Then I went to look at the jellyfish, which weren’t doing any sort of training but which are lovely to behold.
After that I petted a couple of rays and a young bonnethead shark.
My colleague Julie asked about the sharks and rays in the touch pool, which seemed to be circling the pool regularly. “Is that stereotypic behavior?” she asked, which would indicate stressed or unhappy animals.
The keeper assured us it wasn’t; indeed, if one watched individual animals, one could see that they varied their path. They do swim incessantly, because in the wild they might cover 75 miles a day in foraging, but their behavior doesn’t indicate undue stress here.
I did note that, while in other touch pools I’ve seen the animals often avoid the edges near the tourists, most of these rays and sharks swam alongside the wall and directly into outstretched hands. When an aquarium guest exclaimed, “They like petting!” the keeper amiably acknowledged, “They certainly don’t mind it.” Indeed, where they could have avoided human contact by swimming just a few inches to one side, they repeatedly came by for touch. Does it feel good on their slick skin? Do they enjoy the silly and amusing antics the guests offer to try to entice them nearer? I can’t guess why, but it seems they certainly aren’t bothered by the silly humans.
Then I stopped to see another animal not currently in training, but gorgeous to observe, the sea dragon:
And then, back to the fur seals for another session. And this was pretty cool.
I went with Lindsay again, blind Chacoda’s trainer. This time she was working with another blind animal, the completely blind Baranov, a senior northern fur seal. Baranov has a repertoire of verbal and tactile cues and he still obviously enjoys working!
Baranov’s vibrissae (whiskers) are obviously very important instruments for him. Watch how he uses them in this short video clip.
Baranov showed us some of his behavior repertoire, both fun tricks and vital husbandry behaviors used in his daily medical treatments (some of which will probably appear as illustrations for another blog post or article), and then we got to watch him paint.
Things to note:
- Trainer Lindsay not only explained that she had trained each step to fluency first, she reviewed them before beginning the more-complex task. (Especially before performing before guests at such close quarters!)
- When Baranov made a mistake (at 1:50 in the video), she neutrally interrupted the behavior before it could get out of control (note how even her voice remains throughout the session!). Before resuming the complex task, she reviewed the simple component. When a second mistake occurred, she threw in a couple of simple, unrelated cues to reset and break the developing chain of exaggerated behavior. Great job.
- This was only the second time Baranov had worked on a small canvas instead of a large one, so his movements were out of scale — and remember that he is totally blind, so he is dependent upon the tactile feedback of the brush on canvas, so without that he was probably experiencing frustration. Lindsay recognized when the task was getting to be less fun and picked a good rep to end the session.
- At the end, when there were human conversations to be had — presenting the finished painting to Karen Pryor as a birthday gift — she cued Baranov that the session was over. While end-of-session signals aren’t ideal for every situation, it was definitely more fair here to let Baranov know that he was “off duty” while the humans conversed, so he wasn’t suffering from a low rate of reinforcement for his good attention.
Did I mention that I got to experience the luxurious fur for which these seals were hunted nearly to extinction? (Before anyone is alarmed by the photo, remember that Baranov is blind and his ear flaps are naturally in this position — he’s not really fleeing in utter panic!)
Of course, the training staff wanted their photo with Karen! Some of them had brought books to be signed.
As we prepared to leave, we noticed the rock hopper penguins enjoying the after-hours sprinklers cleaning their rocks.
But the evening wasn’t done yet; we went to dinner at Legal Seafood and found a couple of surprises….
All in all, a fantastic outing with a great group of trainers and friends!