Friday, May 29, 2009

Swimming with Sparky

This summer Sparky V, who retired from shows in 2000, celebrated his 31st birthday. As the second oldest sea lion in a North American zoo, he has encouraged his trainers to find new and creative things to train him to do that he is physically capable of doing in his old age. Sparky V has always had a uniquely laid back temperament and a trusting relationship with his trainers, so in the summer of 2008 we started getting in the pool with him and training him to do water behaviors. Because of his old age we had different goals than many other facilities that swim with their sea lions. Sparky V would not be doing any fancy foot-pushes or pulling us through the water; the purpose of our water work would be to keep his training new and exciting and allow him to spend more time in the water where he is most comfortable. This video is a clip from last summer when just began to work with him in the water. The first behavior we trained is called a water present, where he floats next to the trainer with flippers extended so we can take a good look at his entire body. The most important part of this behavior is that he is calm. He relaxed immediately with the behavior and responded positively to the water work. You can see in the video that a large portion of his training is using fish and touching him as reinforcement for his calmness. We continued this training inside during the winter, although it is more fun in the sun!

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