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Sometimes You Just Need To Be Held: Theater Of The Sea's Disabled California Sea Lion Learns A Voluntary Restraint

By Shawn R. Noren, Ph. D. — Institute of Marine Science, University of California, Santa Cruz | Compiled by Beau Richter

Originally published in Soundings Volume 41, Number 4 — Fourth Quarter 2016

Established in 1946, Theater of the Sea (TOTS/Theater) is the second oldest marine mammal park in the United States. TOTS houses California sea lions, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles, reptiles, stingrays, nurse sharks, and parrots.

Theater of the Sea

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

Bella Smile

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

Duffy restraint

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

Meet the Sea Lion restraint

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

Restraint with welding gloves

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

Restraint in water

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

One person restraint

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

Mimi hydration while restrained

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

Three person restraint

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

Sea Lion in Squeeze Cage

photo credit: Theater of the Sea

Theater of the Sea staff has trained voluntary restraints with our Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) for years, but not with California sea lions (Zalophus californianus). When they needed to be restrained, male sea lions were placed in a squeeze cage due to their size and strength, and females were manually “caught” due to their small size and ability to flip over, in order to elude a squeeze cage.

Sea lion catches were especially difficult at TOTS, due to the large natural lagoons that are provided for the animals. The sea lions have access to two beaches, two holding pools, and the sea lion stadium. Each area has a sand and rock bottom of varying depths, surrounded by mangroves and palm trees that provide natural shade for the animals. There are also many awnings in place to protect the sea lions from the elements. While extremely enriching for our animals, these pools provide a challenge, especially when caring for animals medically, which is why it is so important to train voluntary husbandry behaviors, including restraints. Previously, a sea lion catch involved closing the animal into a holding pool, to avoid the obstacles a catch on the beach would incur, then paneling the animal into a dry area and shielding them into a corner, before catching with a net and manually restraining them. This method was only used in necessary situations because it could be stressful and dangerous for the animal, as well as the trainers.

Currently, only a few staff members had ever participated in a sea lion catch, and for the most part only with elderly sea lions. It was assumed that catching younger sea lions would be much more difficult, due to their size and speed, resulting in even more stress for the animal and challenges for the trainers. After discussing other options with TOTS curator Beverley Osborne, it was decided that if dolphins could learn a voluntary restraint, sea lions could, too!

Theater of the Sea houses seven California sea lions; Wilbur, a 17 year-old male, Tucker, a 10 year-old male,  Jet, a 7 year-old female, and Mimi, a 29 year-old female, who were all born in human care, in addition to two new, non-releasable rescues, Malibu and Monica, who are 1.5 years old. Bella, our 7 year-old female California sea lion was rescued and rehabilitated by the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, CA in June 2008. She found a home at TOTS on October 13, 2009. Bella was deemed non-releasable after being diagnosed with a neurological condition. Her motor skills are impaired, resulting in wide head excursions to compensate. Dr. Julia Blackmore conducted a neurological exam on Bella in 2010 and listed the possible causes of Bella’s wide head excursions to be Cerebellar hyperplasia, congenital, or trauma either at birth or in the early stages of life. However, Bella has not received a MRI to confirm diagnosis.

Bella’s head does not move when she is sleeping. She is able to keep her head still when asked, but her eyes continue to move as if her head were still moving and have even been known to roll in opposite directions. Bella’s disorder has not inhibited her from participating in swims, meets, paint programs, and various husbandry behaviors. She seems to learn at a pace similar to that of the other animals at TOTS. Historically, Bella is distracted by shadows and noises, and has trouble with sessions involving multiple trainers around her, which often causes her to flee the session.

Bella was the perfect candidate to learn the voluntary restraint because of her disorder, her docile nature, and her strong relationship with her trainer. Her participation in interactive programs had already desensitized her to many tactile sensations. The restraint behavior would condition her to having multiple people close to her and provide a way to handle her for potential medical procedures.

Restraint approximations began by having Bella tuck her flippers to her sides on the verbal SD “Tuck” or a tap on her sides. Next, she had to learn to allow her trainer to hold her neck. Then, one at a time, additional trainers would approach and position themselves around her. Pressure from the restrainers was increased, as well as the duration of the behavior. Once the training reached a point where a person was on either side it was decided that it would be easier if the trainer holding her neck simply sat on top of her while holding her. With th trainer on top of her, it was easier to monitor her eyes and hold her head in place, and better simulated an actual restraint. This was easily approximated with a few solo sessions, then the additional trainers were reintroduced one at a time to the behavior. Eventually, Bella was conditioned to have the restrainers already in place and gate in to them, which was easier than requiring her to remain still while many people moved in around her.  In the final behavior one to two people sit on top, and up to seven people restrain her from the sides. Bella’s reinforcement during these training sessions consisted of lots of primary, as well as secondary reinforcers such as ice and kisses. TOTS quickly discovered that training a voluntary restraint can turn the hectic experience of a catch into a well-reinforced behavior!

In an effort to further reinforce the restraint layout, the behavior was added to Theater of the Sea’s Meet the Sea Lion Program (MTSL). The guests set up in two rows and Bella lies down and tucks her flippers between them. Once tucked, the guests are allowed to pet her in this position, providing an adorable photo for the guests and extra tactile training for Bella. This allowed reinforcement opportunities for having multiple people around her, in a different type of setting. Using this behavior in MTSL was a very important step in completing the restraint.

Bella learned the voluntary restraint in a few short weeks, therefore it was decided to take the behavior a step further. Trainers began pairing the restraint with her previously trained husbandry behaviors. These husbandry behaviors were trained without restraint, however pairing them with the voluntary restraint provided another opportunity to reinforce sensations that could occur during an involuntary restraint or catch.

First, the restraint was paired with her voluntary blood draw. This would be the first real test of how well the restraint would work when Bella realized she was actually being restrained while stuck with a needle. To pair the blood draw, TOTS vet tech, Melissa, was positioned in the back of the restraint set up. A tourniquet was placed around Bella’s flipper, then her flipper was spread out and the vein located. The needle stick duration was approximated as well, therefore the first approximation consisted of a poke and immediate removal. Bella gave no reaction the first two times she was stuck, and received a large amount of reinforcement. However, the behavior was not without setbacks. On her third needle stick when her flipper was spread out she pulled it away, then realized that she was being restrained. This behavior was given an LRS in the hopes that she would return to a calm state but this did not happen, and she terminated the restraint. However, before breaking station she offered her “go to” behavior of kissing one of the people involved in restraining her. Though Bella could have been forcibly kept in place, rather than allowing her to terminate the behavior, her trainers felt that maintaining Bella’s trust was more important and would result in a greater likelihood of her participating in the restraint in a real situation. Thankfully this setback only interfered with a few sessions and was overcome during one session where Bella began to wiggle and then calmed down. Her trainer was able to bridge and reinforce the choice to continue the behavior calmly, and Bella continued to willingly set up for the restraint behavior. The decision was made to focus on longer duration before another needle stick, and after reinforcing a few calm reactions, Bella was back to full restraints!

Next, her restraint was paired with her ultrasound. A hose was used as lubrication and a blue bin kept the machine from getting splashed. For ventral positioning, due to her tolerance of trainer tactile, the trainer was able to lay across her body while the vet tech continued the exam.

Shortly after training Bella for the restraint, Katia, another trainer at Theater of the Sea, began conditioning Mimi, our elderly blind sea lion, for the restraint paired with her previously trained oral hydration. This pairing was very important because when an animal is ill and not eating, it often results in a catch in order to tube feed gruel, fluids, meds etc. Rehearsing this behavior voluntarily enabled reinforcement for a calm reaction to the tube when the animal is still motivated by primary reinforcement.

Finally, Bella and Mimi were trained to breathe with an anesthesia cone placed over their nose, while in the restraint. While in the restraint layout a verbal SD, “cone,” is given as the cone is placed over her muzzle, then the verbal SD “breathe,” as the trainer holds onto the neck. This behavior may be very useful when anesthetizing a sea lion as some animals can experience an excitement phase when going under anesthesia. If that were to occur the trainers are prepared to restrain the animal until they are fully anesthetized.

With her voluntary restraint behavior so well reinforced, the next question became what would happen if Bella needed to be restrained but was not able to be moved into the dry area. So, it was decided to attempt an in-water restraint similar to what is done with TOTS dolphins. Bella performed her restraint behavior in the water perfectly on her first attempt! This in-water restraint has also now been added to TOTS swim with the sea lion program and is conducted regularly with guests.

As the final step, due to the fact that during an involuntary catch, gloves are used to protect your hands, it was important to introduce welding gloves to the behavior. After only a few approximations Bella allowed her trainer to wear the gloves while restraining her.

Bella is now successfully trained for a voluntary restraint, involving up to eight people, paired with a variety of husbandry behaviors! Training Bella for a voluntary restraint, not only provided another option to help care for her medically, but transformed her into an animal that is extremely comfortable with a group of people around her. These skills will help Bella as a whole to be a more confident, successful animal.

The final goals of the voluntary restraint were that the behaviorwould be reinforcing enough that Bella would set up for it even when she was not food motivated.She would be prepared for the experience of being restrained, so that in a situation where it may have to be done involuntarily, she would be more familiar with the sensations.

Currently at Theater of the Sea, all of our female California sea lions are being trained for voluntary restraints. It is recognized that each animal is an individual, and where Bella’s training progressed quickly, slower approximations may be necessary with animals that have a shorter reinforcement history with tactile behaviors. At Theater of the Sea, the voluntary restraint behavior is highly valued, and Bella has shown that the sky is the limit with what can be paired with it!

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