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By Márcia P. Neto — Zoomarine – Portugal, Mundo Aquático S.A.; Elsa F. Quintino — Zoomarine – Portugal, Mundo Aquático S.A.; Lucie Palma — Zoomarine – Portugal, Mundo Aquático S.A.; Hugo Camacho — Zoomarine – Portugal, Mundo Aquático S.A.; Carla A. Flanagan — Zoomarine – Portugal, Mundo Aquático S.A.; Joana Silva — Zoomarine – Portugal, Mundo Aquático S.A.; Miguel S. Silveira — Zoomarine – Portugal, Mundo Aquático S.A.

Originally published in Soundings Volume 39, Number 2 — Second Quarter 2014

The longevity of marine mammals under human care has been progressively increasing due to the growing ‘know-how’ of the teams responsible for the animals’ well-being (trainers, veterinarians, biologists). Our marine mammal collection at Zoomarine Portugal, composed of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), South African fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus), harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), and gray seals (Halichoerus grypus), presently has a considerable number of geriatric individuals.

Aging naturally leads to some degree of physical degeneration,such as loss of eyesight, hearing, and locomotion limitations. Faced with these physical alterations, from a training perspective, at some point in time we have had to decide whether to adopt a passive or active approach to aging. We could either decide not to change anything and, in our view, eventually in a few years, lose important trained behaviors. Or, inversely, we could start to adjust the training process as early as possible to each animal’s physical alterations, in order to maintain behaviors and consequently, maintain the level of care provided. Since the very beginning, our philosophy has been to provide our animals all the best care and quality of life we can. With this in mind, and along with great examples in our community of successful techniques applied to training of geriatric marine mammals (e.g., Burtis, Garver, Hoffman & Roberts, 2008: Negrini, 2000), we chose to face the challenge. The training team, in close collaboration with the veterinarian team, developed a specific training program tailored to our geriatric animals’ needs. Each geriatric animal has benefited from a customized training program, synchronized to its evolving needs.

The process of alteration of the stimulus of each trained behavior begins as soon as the dolphin or pinniped shows signs of losing any physical capability. This way, we try to make sure that the individual is still able to acquire the new SDs for the previously learned behavior, before completely losing the ability to elicit the behavior.

The training of medical behaviors is a very important tool in marine mammal health care (Brando, 2010) and maintaining such behaviors may mean that we are still able to collect fundamental biological samples with cooperative behaviors. Besides this, it is also important to consider the enrichment component that the training has on the lives of our animals.

As stated by Ramirez (2012) “training has proven to be a mechanism that reaches far beyond teaching an animal to participate in a medical behavior; it gives the caregiver the ability to provide greater opportunities for physical exercise and far more options for mental stimulation in the zoological environment”.It has always beenour belief that it is fundamental to stimulate our animals during all phases of their lives, which is yet another good reason for us to retain them in our training program.

Jojo, an 18-year-old blind elephant seal with severe physical limitations died in 1996. Up until that time he cooperated in medical behaviors such as blood sampling, oral tube hydration, collection of respiratory secretions, and actively participated in public presentations both in and out of the water. Wendy was a female Californian sea lion, died at the age of 22. She also participated in all medical behaviors despite growing progressively blind over the years. We managed to gradually transfer all of her visual SDs to vocal and tactile SDs.

Barish, a male 24-year-old South-African fur seal, was quite a challenge, because besides his loss of eyesight, we realized he was also becoming deaf. Simply to get him out of the water we had to call him by slamming the feeding bucket on the floor. For all the blind animals, we have had to revise our SD repertoires. At some point, it became very important to start using the animals’ sensitive whiskers as a way to let them know what was expected.

With lots of empathy and patience, we have been able to adapt the cues and maintain all the behaviors with the same quality as before. Ricky, a male 26-year-old South-African fur seal (Photo 1), showed us how beneficial such adjustments can be. Thanks to our training adaptations, and in spite of his blindness, Ricky is still participating in our presentations. Six years ago, we noticed that he was starting to have trouble with his mobility and that forced us to reduce the number of daily presentations. He has been a great performer all his life, and reducing that part of his daily activity might have turned into a real problem. At that point, we decided to train him for water behaviors, which was the only way to allow him into our presentations again, and it has gone so well that soon he became kind of an ‘expert’! Actually, we used to call Ricky "The Teacher,” because he helps all our new trainers to practice water behaviors.

Photo Credits: Zoomarine

Indeed, we strongly believe that even the oldest animals are still able to learn and still capable and willing to adapt. It can take a bit longer, but it is a very rewarding process that allows them to continue to remain stimulated and, therefore, more active and healthier.

We extend this process to our routine husbandry procedures, in order to maintain welfare. Consequently, we have managed to keep doing oral hydration, blood sampling, and other medical routines with our ‘old guys’. Indeed, we are proud to claim that 100% of our geriatric individuals are collaborating with us in our preventative medicine protocol.

Sam, a male bottlenose dolphin, who lived until he was almost 51-years-old, was a great example of how maintaining good training can give a better quality of life and, consequently, extend it. Sam was doing cooperative oral hydration two, sometimes even three times a day, for over a decade, due to a renal condition. Aerosol inhalation was done twice a day to treat respiratory alterations as well. He maintained excellent control during all trained medical behaviors, including ultrasounds, semen collection, and urine collection with a catheter. (Photo 2, 3.) Maintaining the quality of this behavior was especially a challenge, as Sam also partially lost his eyesight and hearing.

And what about older animals with no training background? What could we do? There are no husbandry behaviors to maintain, so we would have to start from scratch. Is it possible? Yes it is! For instance, we have a 26-year-old female South-African fur seal, named Mona, who arrived at the park when she was already 20-years-old, almost totally blind, and completely naïve in terms of training. She is living proof that it is never too late to learn or, more exactly, to start learning. She is now collaborating in several husbandry behaviors such as blood sampling, oral hydration, topical eye treatments, teeth brushing, and general body examination.

Beyond maintaining existing behaviors, it is possible to train innovative medical procedures. The level of trust that we have reached with our animals has allowed us to go further and further with our training ability when faced with new challenges, like urine collection in geriatric gray seal and sea lion females. An example of this is with Cher, a 45-year-old bottlenose dolphin that is still actively participating in all her group’s normal activities and shows with no physical limitation whatsoever. She participated in cooperative genital and oral biopsies and, at the age of 38, Cher was artificially inseminated under behavioral control (Neto et al., 2006). The procedure was a success and thanks to that... Alpha, now a 7-year-old, is one of the joys of our team!

The experience acquired from innovating husbandry behaviors with a particular species can and should be used, whenever possible and desired, in the training of other species.We have recently decided to train urine collection via catheter with our geriatric pinnipeds, based on our previous experience with this behavior in the bottlenose dolphins (Neto et al., 2008). Once again, we believe this new procedure will bring us precious data and treatment options that will help us take better care of them.

All the examples above show that it is possible to maintain all the medical behaviors that our animals used to do when they were younger. These ‘old guys’ keep teaching us the importance of always being one step ahead of normal health declines and ready to adapt the training.

Being flexible is the key. That premise allows us to maintain our preventative medicine protocols, as well as see many of them live longer and longer and with a better quality of life!


We would like to thank Zoomarine's board, Pedro Lavia, Arlindo Ferreira, Oscar Cardoso, and José Ignacio Cobo for their continued support. We would also like to thank the enthusiastic guidance provided over the years by Elio Vicente, Bruce Stephens (in memoriam), Geraldine Lacave, Thad Lacinak, and Angi Millwood. Lastly thanks to Marco Bragança for reviewing the manuscript and for all his important suggestions.

To our wonderful team of trainers and veterinarians that dedicate their lives to our animals and to all the friends, humans and non-human, who are no longer with us, but were fundamental to our path of learning and growth. You will always be in our hearts.


Brando, S. (2010). Advances in husbandry training in marine mammal care programs. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23, 777-791.

Burtis, K. F., Garver, A. C., Hoffman, B. G., & Roberts, D. S. (2008). They’re not old, they’re experienced! Modifying husbandry and behavioral approaches to benefit our geriatric marine mammals. Soundings, 33(4), 16-17.

Negrini, S. (2000). Training and medical care of geriatric Californian sea lions. Soundings, 25(1), 24-27.

Neto M., Ova, I., Herniques, A., Filho, C., Salbany, A., Roque, L., Massei, K., & Perez, H. (2006). Husbandry training for artificial insemination, performed under controlled behavior on a female bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), at Zoomarine (Abstract). Proceedings of the International Marine Mammal Trainers Association, USA, 34, 18.

M. Neto, Quintino, E., Camacho, H., Rico, N., Salbany A., & Silveira, M. (2008). "Urine collection with catheter, by voluntary behavior, in male bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)" (Abstract). Proceedings of the International Marine Mammal Trainers Association, USA, 36, 29.

Ramirez, K. (2012). Marine Mammal Training. The history of training animals for medical behaviors and keys to their success. In B. Heidenreich (Ed.) Veterinary Clinics of North America:  Exotic Animal Practice, (15, 413-423).


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