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September 23, 2013

Sea Otters Take the Cake

SOAW otters finishing cake_blog

Welcome to Sea Otter Awareness Week, Sept. 22 through 28! To celebrate, we’ll share photos and videos, amaze you with fun facts and take you behind the scenes for glimpses into how we care for—and totally indulge—these littlest of marine mammals.

We got a jump on the week of all things sea otter a few days early when we gave the four otters—male Yaku and females Kiana, Mari and Cayucos—seven, count ’em, seven decorated Sea Otter Awareness Week “cakes” for them to eat, lick, hog, demolish and otherwise enjoy.

Five hours before the treats are served—time enough for them to freeze—trainer Christy Sterling, who is assistant supervisor of sea otters and penguins, sets up shop in the hall outside the walk-in freezer where restaurant-grade seafood for all the animals is stored. She balances a toy known as the “iceberg”—a white hard-resin disk about 40 inches across and 6 inches deep—on a cart, along with a large container of freshly pureed clam-and-water formula, bottles of food coloring and several large syringes. Proximity to the freezer is essential because she doesn’t want the formula to “droop” once it is applied to the iceberg.

Ordinarily, the otters get this formula, blended to the consistency of smooth oatmeal, squirted into their mouths by syringe as positive reinforcement during training. They love it.

SOAW cake and Christy_blogBut today, Christy is master cake decorator. She apportions the formula into three more containers and mixes food dyes—blue, green, yellow (which turns pumpkin orange in the tan clam) and pink (which comes out purple)—to create four colors of “frosting.” Then, loading the syringes, she lets her creativity flow.

She pipes “HAPPY SEA OTTER AWARENESS WEEK” onto the iceberg, along with “shedd aquarium 2013” and blue waves that echo the terra cotta trim on the aquarium. It is a work of art. She hustles it into the freezer to set. “The otters will get on top of it and lick off the lettering,” she says knowingly.

SOAW 2013 cake_blogThen she moves into the “cold room” of the marine mammals kitchen, where the day’s measured-out meals for all the Abbott Oceanarium’s animals are kept, to work on smaller treats. On a pizza-sized white plastic cutting board—another toy—she carefully writes the four otters’ names. Then into the freezer it goes.

On a tire-sized toy called the blue donut she quickly makes purple stripes and orange squiggles, then dots the “frosting” with bits of pollock. Even in the chill 50-degree room, the formula starts to run before she moves it to the freezer. After quickly decorating another floating toy, she takes two round 9-inch ice cakes and turns them into a layer cake, held together with bright blue formula and capelin filling and topped with a circle of large shrimp.

Christy has obviously had a lot of practice creating these “cakes.” “I have a lot of fun doing this,” she says, “and once I get started, my creativity just takes off.” The cakes, prepared for holidays and other special occasions, are part of the otters’ enrichment—something unexpected and exciting for these curious animals to explore, play with and eat.

SOAW all cakes_blog (2)Surveying her work, Christy says, “These are probably the most colorful cakes I’ve ever made.” While the full spectrum of color may be lost on the otters, she is sure they are going to love the treats.

That afternoon, the otters prove her right. While the three females are in a reserve area, and Yaku is distracted with treats, Christy and three animal care specialists carry the frozen confections into the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat, floating the iceberg in the water and arranging the rest of the cakes on the rockwork ledge.



 

While the other three otters bound in from reserve, Yaku goes for the iceberg, swiping the q from “aquarium.” Mari targets another cake, ripping off the fish frozen onto the surface with her teeth. Cayucos goes from one treat to another, flipping them formula side into the water and licking the clam off from underneath. Kiana polishes off “shedd a uarium” on the iceberg. Mari and Cayucos have a tug-of-war over one ice layer cake while Yaku has the other on his chest, rolling with it and eating the capelin trim. Mike Pratt, an animal care specialist watching the party, points out that in training sessions, Yaku is not a fan of capelin.

Presentation is everything.

In less than 10 minutes, an hour’s worth of preparation is reduced to a few chunks of melting ice and telltale smears of blue, green, orange and purple around otter mouths.

“That’s okay,” Mike says. “We have as much fun making these cakes as the otters have eating them.”

Karen Furnweger, web editor

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