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September 26, 2012

Sea Otter Awareness Week: Catching Up with Cayucos

Cayucos_blog

It’s time to check in again with one of our marine mammal youngsters, southern sea otter Cayucos. She’s 10 months old now and weighs about 35 pounds—up from 11 pounds when she arrived in early January.

Look for her in the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat. She’s the smallest and darkest of the sea otters, although such relative criteria don’t help a lot when several dark, streamlined bodies are ricocheting through the water. Cayucos is most often with Mari and Kiana, the two younger adult female otters. They have the patience—as well as the energy level—to put up with the pup’s playfulness. Our two seniors, Kenai and Kachemak, have been known to push Cayucos away when she gets too rambunctious. The pup is still too small to meet our sole male, 80-pound Yaku.

While she’s very social, Cayucos is also good at self-amusing with a variety of toys. She loves hard plastic abalone shells and green sea stars—made of the same heavy wool as the “kelp” car-wash strips the otters love—that sink to the bottom of the habitat for her to retrieve. Perhaps her favorite game is “pounce and bounce” on various-sized buoys and buoyant balls. She’ll jump on one with enough force to sink it briefly before it pops her back to the surface. The floating toys are also fun to roll around and splash with.

Another way to identify her is when she’s with a trainer who's holding a red-and-yellow cross, the shape the otter is learning to come to—or station at—for training sessions. Of course, training is just like play for Cayucos. She’s learning a hand signal that sends her scampering into a portable dog kennel—used to move the otters for wellness exams—and she’s practicing a behavior called “A to B,” in which she moves from one trainer to another. Both are important behaviors that help the otters take part in their own medical care.

Training has to be fast-paced and fun, with plenty of treats like krill-filled ice cubes and frozen “clam pops,” to engage sea otters, which are notorious for their brief attention spans. But training also helps the sea otters focus better. Cayucos has started “extended target”—floating still and putting her paws on a target—a small buoy attached to a long handle—that a trainer touches to the otter’s chest. The task requires a certain level of self-control, and the adult otters are pretty good at it, holding the target for 20 seconds or longer.

While Cayucos isn’t exactly a baby anymore, she is learning by baby steps—our trainers call them “approximations” as an animal gets closer and closer to doing the cued behavior. After she touches the target for a second—and only a second for now—her trainer pulls it away, says “good” and reinforces the behavior with a piece of fish. The trainer has to be observant—and quick—so that Cayucos doesn’t have a chance to grab the target or do something else that could turn into a bad habit. Once the targeting behavior is established, however, the trainer can begin to extend the touch times second by second.

It’s a slow process, but this and the other husbandry behaviors instilled are essential to the good health and well-being of the otters as well as the safety of the trainers.

Not long ago, aquariums wrote off hyperkinetic sea otters as untrainable. They were cute and playful, but unmanaged they were also strong and unpredictable wild animals with big teeth and a powerful bite. Ken Ramirez, Shedd’s executive vice president of animal care and training, whose motto is “Any animal can be trained,” developed a behavioral program for sea otters that is used in aquariums and zoos around the world today. Sea otters turned out to be just as trainable as the belugas and dolphins, and you’ll see many of the same techniques, including hand signals, shapes, targets and toys, used during their sessions—although faster and with more variation to keep pace with the otters’ ever-changing interests.

Why not visit Cayucos and the other otters during Sea Otter Awareness Week, through Sept. 29? We’ll have special sea otter chats by the habitat, and you can try your skill at spotting our youngest otter.

Karen Furnweger, web editor


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