Becoming a Primary
Picture this. You’re in the middle of your day analyzing animal behavior data. Your curator pulls you aside and tells you some very exciting news.
“You’re going to be primary on Reggae.”
I was ecstatic! In trainer speak, she just told me that I will be Reggae’s trainer. Reggae is our 26-year-old, male Atlantic harbor seal. Each aquarium or zoo has a different policy on how their animals are trained. Here at the New England Aquarium, each seal or sea lion has two primary trainers. One primary trainer works Sunday through Wednesday (me!), and the other primary trainer works Wednesday through Saturday (my co-worker KP).
Building a Relationship
Before you can start training any seal, you need to create a two-way, trusting relationship with them. I have to trust that Reggae won’t bite me, and Reggae has to trust that I won’t bite him. But the big question is: How do you build a relationship with a wild animal?
You pair yourself with something they like. Once I started to build my relationship with Reggae, I got to know his likes and dislikes. Weighing in at more than 200 pounds, Reggae is the largest and heaviest harbor seal we have at the New England Aquarium, so he definitely likes his fish. Every animal has its own food preference, just like we do as humans. He prefers herring over capelin and capelin over squid. His absolute favorite is herring that isn’t cut.
Once that relationship is solid, you can start taking on the important responsibilities of being a primary trainer. You wear many different hats as a trainer. You are a teacher, caretaker, doctor, and friend.
In the simplest of definitions, training is teaching. Each behavior that you see our seals and sea lions do during their training sessions is something a trainer has taught them. Currently, I am teaching Reggae something called shape discrimination, which is where he will go to a specific shape every time, even if other shapes are present.
Not only do I teach Reggae new behaviors, I also take care of him. I clip Reggae’s nails and brush his teeth.
I also give Reggae checkups on his health every day. I will have him lay out so I can take a peek at his entire body, do an eye exam, or check out inside of his mouth.
It is important to note that I am not just his trainer, I am his friend. We trust each other and provide a calm influence on each other, and I help him relax, if something startles him. We teach each other about animal behavior, enjoy doing things together, as well as just hanging out. I am starting to teach him new behaviors, which is very interesting for both of us.
Keep Your Distance
I am continuously building my relationship with Reggae every day. Although the seals at the Aquarium are comfortable around humans, this does not mean that seals in the wild are the same way. In fact, seals get spooked pretty easily by new things.
By law, all marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This act makes it illegal to approach a marine mammal in the wild, whether it is on land or in the water. People must stay at least the length of one football field (300 feet) away from any marine mammal at all times. Give these seals the space they deserve and keep your seal watching from afar via binoculars.