December 10, 2019
By Katie Stryker, Sea Lion Sound Keeper
California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) belong to a group of animals called pinnipeds, or fin-footed mammals. Affectionately referred to as "sea dogs," California sea lions can be found up and down the west coast of North America, from British Columbia, Canada, to Baja California, Mexico. Sea lions are naturally curious animals and have been seen swimming and playing in the kelp forests of the Pacific Ocean.
Enrichment & Training
At the Saint Louis Zoo, we care for nine California sea lions. Five females and four males, ages 8 to 18, make up the colony at our Judy & Jerry Kent Family Sea Lion Sound. Enrichment is a major part of our animal care program and creates a win-win-win situation for the animals, visitors and keepers!
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) defines enrichment as "a process that ensures the behavioral and physical needs of an animal are being met by providing opportunities for species-appropriate behaviors and choices." Basically, enrichment is anything that can be given to the animals which provides mental or physical stimulation.
At Sea Lion Sound, a major component of the sea lions' enrichment program involves training. All of the pinnipeds at the Saint Louis Zoo voluntarily participate in several training sessions a day, 365 days a year! During these training sessions, all of their senses are actively engaged, and they even receive social and cognitive stimulation through interactions with their trainers. Even though these training sessions provide the most stimulation for the sea lions, they actually only make up a very small part of the animals' day. The challenge is how to continue to provide enriching opportunities for the sea lions during the "downtime" when they are not actively training.
Given their similarities to dogs, many of the enrichment items the sea lions get are the same ones you might give to your pets at home! ChuckIt and Kong toys are among the sea lions' favorites and they often manipulate them with their mouths, muzzles and flippers. Nikki, a 9-year-old sea lion, loves Hula Hoops, and uses her flippers to hug them to her chest, sometimes bending them in half. The pinnipeds are also given ice treats with fish, Jell-O, or KoolAid powder in them (another sea lion favorite!), olfactory (smell) enrichment in the form of different spices sprinkled on the deck areas around the habitats or perfume sprayed on the rockwork, and auditory (hearing) enrichment, like Christmas music or my favorite Taylor Swift playlist. We also have several larger "furniture"-type objects that can change the habitats visually and may alter how the sea lions move throughout their environment. Mandy, one of Sea Lion Sound's youngest residents, can often be found standing with her front flippers resting on a big plastic box when she isn't participating in her training sessions!
Some of our younger sea lions, especially Dixi and Mia, have become very popular with Zoo guests because they are extremely interactive in the Holekamp Aqua Tunnel and at the underwater viewing window. For the past several months, we have tried to find new ways to utilize Sea Lion Sound's underwater viewing opportunities in conjunction with the sea lions' natural curiosity and gregarious nature to encourage activity when the animals are out in the main habitat. This area is where they spend a lot of their time. In order to achieve this goal, we have brought various enrichment items into the tunnel with the hopes of the sea lions interacting with them through the acrylic. These items have included squishy toys and balls, tinsel, bubbles, a rubber duck, mirrors, and even a pillow shaped like an ice cream cone to see if the sea lions would show any interest. Anything and everything imaginable could be used as enrichment, which is what makes it so fun! The possibilities are endless.
The tunnel sessions have been a great success! As expected, the younger females have been the most interactive. They chased the tinsel around in circles and swam after balls rolled along the ledges. Nikki was very intrigued when I started juggling in the tunnel and she did flips underwater trying to follow the balls as they moved between my hands. In spring 2019, during the St. Louis Blues' historic playoff run to the Stanley Cup, the sea lions were able to show their support for their hometown heroes while interacting with various hockey-themed items in the tunnel. Again, Nikki was the most interactive during these enrichment "pep rallies" and would often sit long enough investigating the hockey pucks and the stuffed Louie toy that guests were able to snap some pretty incredible photos!
Even though Nikki usually provides the most entertainment during our tunnel enrichment sessions, the most rewarding experiences thus far have been with Boulder and Lou, two males who generally do not interact much with any enrichment. Boulder blew bubbles at a ball placed on a ledge and looked at himself in a mirror that was held up to the acrylic and Lou very cautiously approached a ball filled with tinsel— a huge step for our usually timid boy!
As you can see, these underwater interactions have been very enriching for the sea lions and trainers alike. The Saint Louis Zoo has a mission statement for the enrichment of all of its animals, which is "to provide the animals in our care with an environment and varying activities that promote a range of species-appropriate behavior, facilitate behavioral choices, and enhance individual well-being." We hope to continue finding new and exciting ways to enrich our sea lions in the tunnel and to enhance the experience of everybody who visits Sea Lion Sound!