MOD Squad visits New England Aquarium
May 2, 2011

 Reggae, a harbor seal

written by Sheri

A very unique opportunity was recently offered by our Director Mike Keiley to many of our staff members and our volunteer behavior modification squad (MOD squad), it was to trek down to the New England Aquarium and meet with their trainers to learn about how they train harbor and fur seals. Obviously we jumped at the chance!

Typically at the MSPCA this group of people works on clicker training with the dogs,  or for myself clicker training also with the small animals. We work hard at trying to correct undesirable behaviors and to make an animal at Nevins have a better chance at finding a loving caring home.  For us going to the NE Aquarium was a chance to see how another group of trainers modify behavior in another species of animals. Plus it was just truly cool to get up close and personal with the seals.

So this week ten of us hopped into two cars and headed to Boston to meet the NE aquarium team. Upon arrival the Marine Mammals Assistant Curator Jenny Montague greeted us. She was very welcoming and spoke with us for a while about some of the challenges that their facility faces. Did you know they frequently have issues with cataracts in their harbor seals and that they treat all of their medical issues in house? We started chatting how marine mammals are different from a domesticated animal but also on what their similarities were.

From there we got to participate in a training session between a Mammal Trainer Patty Schilling and one of their resident harbor seals named Reggae. During presentations the harbor seals know which trainer to go over to by them simply seeing who is holding up their target object. For example Reggae came right over to Patty when she held up a small rubber tire. One of the highlights for me was when Reggae rolled over onto his back and very patiently let all of us touch his rotund belly which felt very much like smooth worn corduroy covering a water balloon.

After the session with Reggae we were sent back towards their fur seal tank areas with Jenny. In the first window we witnessed a touching moment between a trainer and her fur seal that at the old age of twenty had started having major organ shutdowns and she was there to say goodbye.  Her love for that seal was apparent even through the glass door that separated us. Working with animals I can tell you first hand how hard letting go can be and how attached and fragile we can feel when we face that, but it's truly the small moments in time when we get a kiss from a scared animal, get a snuggle from a sick one, or even just waving goodbye to one that you fostered through a hard time as they leave with their new family, that really makes us come back day after day to face whatever is in front of us.

Then, it was fur seal time. We got to witness a public training session as VIP's on the deck on the tank. About 6 fur seals and their trainers were busy putting on a show.  However curious fur seals would come up to our deck to blow raspberries at us or just to stare at us in curiosity.

After, we met the Marine Mammal Curator Kathy Streeter and she invited us to attend their brown bag presentations, these are presentations that the staff and visiting speakers give to other staff members to talk about their experiences and training challenges and triumphs.

We first saw an amazing presentation on fur seal pup shearing by one of their trainers Patty. She spoke about her travels to St. Paul's island.  The pup shearing is done as a way to track to the seal population numbers from year to year.  Basically they just shave a small section on the pups head to make it visible that they have already been accounted for, they also weigh each pup and tag some of the moms with GPS devices to track if they have to search farther out into the ocean for food than in years past. Seeing the presentation you realize those tasks are not quite as easy as they sound. The presentation even included some video clips showing the pups and mother seals unique calls to each other.

Last right before we had to trek back to Nevins to hang out with our furry friends we listened to Kathy's presentation on common training errors.  This was also really beneficial to us being able to see other trainers and see how it can be so easy to reinforce the wrong action in an animal or to build frustration for the trainee if you aren't being consistent.

The biggest difference between what we do training wise and them is, at the aquarium they focus on giving their long term residents enrichment and mental stimuli, at Nevins  we primarily work to modify behaviors in an animal quickly so that it can be placed into a great home faster.

All in all our New England trip was a wonderful experience. It's nice to get a new perspective on the impact training can make and to speak with other animal enthusiasts one on one to share stories of what challenges and successes we have had.

Special Thank you to the New England Aquarium team for taking us in for day, your love and dedication for what you do really was apparent, and also thanks to our Nevins Director Mike Keiley for allowing us to have such a wonderful opportunity to learn.