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April 26, 2012

A Day in the Life of Shedd’s Sea Otter Pup: Water Play!

“Are you ready for extreme cuteness?” animal care specialist Megan Vens-Policky asks as she invites me into the sea otter nursery for an hour and a half of watching Cayucos eat, train, play and, above all, be cute.

In case you aren’t convinced by the photo and video, let me assure you: This animal is adorable. But even more engrossing than her cute behaviors are what they reveal about the development of a sea otter pup and the skills she needs to live a healthy life, whether in the ocean or at Shedd.

I’ve arrived in time for the pup’s mid-afternoon feeding session, which is divided into a short training session, playtime and a little more training, all accompanied by rewards of food—slices of pollock and capelin, inch-thick “ringlets” of squid, strips of clam, and shrimp, both peeled and with the shell.

Megan blows a whistle once to signal the start of the session, just as a trainer would with the dolphins or belugas, but then she tucks it into the neck of her wetsuit.

“Whistles are shiny and dangly,” the trainer says. “They’re a distraction to sea otters and also a temptation to grab. So we use our whistle to start our training session, and then we’ll use ‘good!’ to let Cayucos know she’s doing a good job.”

Today Cayucos is practicing three behaviors: stationing, point following and recognizing her name. The otter is excited, pawing the side of the pool where Megan stands. To station, the pup rolls onto her back and perfectly aligns herself along the edge of the pool. Megan gives her a “good!” and a piece of fish, then has her repeat the behavior. Next, Megan holds out a finger for Cayucos to follow as she walks around the rim of the pool.

“That was excellent attention,” the trainer says. She waits for the otter to look in another direction, then calls her name. When the pup turns her head toward Megan, she gets another chunk of food. Then Megan tosses the otter a few more tidbits, “to end on a positive note,” and returns the food plate to a refrigerator on the other side of the nursery habitat’s security doors.

CayucosWhen Megan gets back, she says, “Let me grab a couple of her new toys.” We head for a storage area under the otter habitat rockwork called “the cave.” Megan continues, “She’s graduated to her adult toys now.” At first, Cayucos had real baby toys, but her teeth—and her jaw power—are getting stronger, and she needs heavy-duty playthings. Some are toys designed for animals, some are common objects that have been repurposed.

In the cave, Megan peruses racks of sea otter toys and picks out a brown boat bumper, a 6-inch blue feeder ball and a clear plastic tube about 14 inches long. We head back to the nursery, and as I watch through the Plexiglas wall of the pool area, Megan goes in and tosses two toys in the water and places the tube on the pool deck.

The attention span Cayucos exhibited during point following evaporates as she bounces from one toy to the other.

First she goes for the tube, which is almost as long as she is. She flips backward into the pool, grips it on her tummy and barrel rolls.

“She’s really curious,” Megan says. “Sometimes she’ll shy away from a new object, but it doesn’t take long before she’s ready to investigate it.” As Cayucos dives with it, the trainer continues, “She gets a variety of floating and sinking toys to help her practice diving. She loves it, she’s a great diver.”

After 52 seconds with the tube, the otter pounces on the ball and takes that underwater for eight seconds. Then she grabs the bumper (five seconds), then switches back to the ball (four seconds).

She’s back to the buoyant bumper, rolling with it, trying to chew it. She looks like a kid with a pool toy. That lasts for 30 seconds, and she goes back to the ball (two seconds). Nah, that’s no fun. (Megan guesses correctly that Cayucos has played with the feeder ball when it has been stuffed with food for her to paw out through its many holes. It’s empty today.)

The pup grabs the tube, hugging it with her mittenlike front paws and big paddle hind feet, chews on it, splashes with it, rolls head over tail, whips it around and splashes some more. Her 35-second attack has Megan and me laughing out loud.

Now, as Cayucos beats up the bumper again—jumping on it, riding it like a float and pushing it into the water to pop back up at her for a whopping minute and 25 seconds—Megan says, “I think I have just as much fun watching her play with the toys as she does playing with them. The bumper is especially fun because it plays back—it rolls and tumbles and bounces away from her.”

But the pup has grabbed the tube again. She spins with it and then porpoises out of the water with it in a series of head-over-tail jumps, demonstrating tremendous strength. She is absorbed with the tube. When she finally drops it, she leaps out of the water to dive to the pool’s 3-foot bottom to retrieve it.

“I’ll get her food and do a foraging feed since she’s already diving so much for her toys,” Megan says. Cayucos continues to play with the tube during the two minutes it takes the trainer to return with the food. Megan pitches seafood into different areas of the pool. Cayucos makes an arcing dive to the bottom, grabs a piece, rockets to the surface to eat it, then dives again, just as she would if she were foraging in California’s coastal waters. “She goes for the shrimp first,” says Megan, “the shrimp and the squid rings first.”

Does Cayucos ever not clean up?

“She’s been cleaning up the pool since she was a little pup. She excels at forage feed.”

Next time: Hall play!

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor

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