Monday, October 12, 2015

Sea Lion Trainer for a Day

The sea lion trainer for a day offered at Manila Ocean Park is a trial program and if I am not mistaken, I was the third one to try it. It’s a 5-hour program that involves a lecture and hands-on training session.

The first part of the training is a briefing and lecture about the sea creatures.

What are sea lions?

Sea Lions are sea mammals that are pinnipeds or fin-footed. Their difference from the other pinnipeds such as walrus and seals is that they have ear flaps, long fore-flippers, can walk all fours and have short, thick hair. Obviously, the fact that they are a popular attraction in zoos and aquariums implies that they are intelligent animals. Their cognitive abilities such as understanding simple syntax and commands when taught an artificial sign language make them easily trainable. In the US Navy, they are even used as part of underwater military missions working with sea divers. How awesome is that? J

Here’s us with Mark and Jhept during the lecture. And did you know that while we are doing the lecture, one of the sea lions from the pool was watching us. She’s just so cute. So eager to interact with me already. :P



How are they trained?

Operant conditioning is the basis of animal training. My further research informed me that this is a behavioral psychology that applies to humans as well. In this type of learning, the animal is conditioned from its behaviors as it acts on the environment. The philosophy is, when an animal performs a particular behavior that produces a favorable consequence, the animal is likely to repeat that behavior. Ever notice the food given to them after an act? That’s what they call positive reinforcement. But more on that later.

After the lecture and a list of do’s and don’t’s, I thought it was already time for the encounter. But nope. Part of the training is hands-on husbandry. Husbandry? I can’t even find a husband for myself – my thoughts exactly. Haha. But husbandry includes the over-all well-being of the animals. This includes routine medical examinations and overall maintenance to ensure their health. Of course to guarantee their health, it is important to have a clean environment. So we went inside their cages and inspected which one needs cleaning. One of the sea lions has poop in his area and so Jhept and I went inside to clean it using a water hose and brush. HA! And you thought it was all fun and laughter with the animals. :P But this is not new to me since I have two dogs myself back at home.

Shortly after that, Jepht taught me how to prepare their food. Sea lions are carnivorous and feed on fish and squid. For my training later that day, we needed to prepare the mackerels. We got enough frozen fish from their stock and carefully chose which ones were fresh. Okay, this is new to me since I don’t cook at home. Haha. Jepht taught me how filter the good ones and slice the mackerel into three pieces but I think I did not do so well on that. *face-palm*

And at long last, my most-awaited moment. Finally, I had Icis for myself. Eeeeeep. From what I understood, the very basic application and summary of operant conditioning philosophy is as follows: target recognition, bridging and reinforcement. For example, I will use my hand as a focal point for the sea lion to touch. He or she must identify and touch it. When it has done so, the bridge is sounded ( a whistle or clicker) and reinforcement follows (food reward). Why is bridging needed? It is needed because reinforcement must immediately follow the behavior in order to be effective. When an animal performs, it might be too far away from the trainer so the sound signal “bridges” the gap between the behavior and the reinforcement. This is the same thing for using long sticks as hand replacement for the animals.

So there I was teaching Icis different tricks. I was rather nervous at first because you really have to be quick in the bridging and reinforcement thing (Mark had to continuously remind me, haha?!) and at the same time I felt that any wrong movements might produce a negative effect on them and make them forget everything that they’ve been trained on. Yay!


Some of the basic tricks taught were saluting, clapping, shake hands, spreading the flappers, standing on fore limbs and directing to places. I think after a few practice, I was able to get the hang of it.

After some time, it came to a point when Icis and I became already comfortable with each other and she felt like kissing me already. Haha! P.S. I just showered her with too much raw mackerels here but how can you not return the passion to kiss back when she's all close-eyed like that. So romantic. Hahaha!!! Uhm, I didn't know they're such passionate kissers too. It wasn't mentioned in the lecture, lol! *plays Katy Perry's song*



My favorite part would have to be the swimming part. This time it was Yeni - another trained cow (female sea lion) in MOP. Mark taught her to perform swimming tricks with me like here below where she was pushing me and all I had to was to keep on floating and the other one was where we go round in circles. It was just so much fun. :)





  
After the swimming session, it was time to freshen up and watch the afternoon show. I've seen a sea lion show before and it was like yeah so, so. But this time, the feeling was different having had that interaction with the performers earlier. I was an eager and observant audience wanting to know more and for them to show me more. :D The nae nae dance trick was very impressive. Hahaha!!!

It was indeed one fun and educational experience for me - something new to learn as I turn a year older that day. I walked out of that park having so much appreciation for sea lions. I think I even love them more than dolphins now. Haha. For this, I'd like to thank the training team of Manila Ocean Park below for such an amazing experience.


The MOP is just a few kilometers away from my home so I really hope to be back soon and see the sea lions again. :) I also hope that I get to apply whatever I learned to my pets and train dolphins in the future too. It seems like a very cool job to do. ;-)

Here's a short clip of the pool training session with Icis:


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