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Trying to Control a Complex Behavioral Problem

By Pablo Joury — Amneville Zoo, France; Alexandre Le Blanc — Amneville Zoo, France; Emilie Treviglio — Amneville Zoo, France; Christilla Bouchet — Amneville Zoo, France; Candice Jourdan — Amneville Zoo, France; Claudia Mahtali — Amneville Zoo, France; Alexis Maillot — Amneville Zoo, France; Vanessa Alerte — Amneville Zoo, France; Geraldine Lacave — Marine Mammal Veterinary Services, Brugge, Belgium

Originally published in Soundings Volume 38, Number 2 — Second Quarter 2013

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Solving a life-threatening regurgitation problem in a California Sea Lion through training and satiation

In 2005, Amneville Zoo (France) opened the biggest pinniped facility in Europe called La Baie des Lions de Mer (see Photo 1 in slideshow on this page) with two outside fresh water pools of 2 million liters (528,344 gal), three inside saltwater pools and 400m2 (14,125 sq ft) of dry area. It presents two different species of pinnipeds (Zalophus californianus and Otaria byronia) in the same area and performing in shows together. From the beginning, the show was a great success. However, in July 2009, one of the animals started exhibiting a strange behavior catching the attention of all the training team.

Gipsy (see Photo 2 in slideshow on this page) is a male California sea lion born under human care, who arrived at Amneville Zoo in June 2004. Because he’s sharing the environment with two other full-grown males it was decided to castrate him. He was generally a very high performance show animal until the summer of 2009. In July of that year, the staff realized that he had started to play with fish and was anticipating the end of the sessions. His diet was adjusted and we also modified his show participation. However, by August of that year, he was actually leaving all sessions to regurgitate (see Photo 3 in slideshow on this page)!

We quickly realized that he was only regurgitating when he was in the water, as he seemed to need a specific head movement to expel the fish. By then we knew we were facing a regurgitation problem. As a quick reminder, and to differentiate between vomiting and regurgitation, vomiting is something that is completely involuntary (the animal has NO control of it), whereas, during regurgitation, the animal controls the process; it’s a voluntary behavior. During that summer Gipsy lost a lot of weight (from 119 kg down to 95 kg (262 to 209 lbs)) and then, on 15 August, he had what looked like an epileptic seizure. This seizure was very traumatic for the training team, but at the end of August he had a second much more severe seizure.

During this second seizure he forcefully vomited, had very strong diarrhea, and then suddenly dropped, stiffened, and appeared dead. Gipsy, apparently suffered cardiac arrest and was declared dead by the zoo veterinarians. While transporting him in a stretcher towards backstage, he unexpectedly resuscitated.

Because, or may be just thanks to this event, we decided to do everything in our power to help him and thereby save his life.

The highest probability for a seizure would be of neurological origin. The vet department worked through the different diagnoses that could lead to such a problem. We thought of lead poisoning or a consequence of Parvovirus infection (there were a lot of animals infected in the zoo at that time); we considered toxins, brain tumor, tuberculosis, and possibly hypoglycemia as a consequence of starvation through regurgitation. Therefore, it was first decided to perform a CT scan with this animal (see Photo 4 in slideshow on this page). The CT scan showed that his stomach and brain were normal, which ruled out some of the possible physical causes for his regurgitation.

Approach #1; Diet and Drugs

So, based on these results, the staff decided to implement some new approaches. To keep him alive, our first objective was to increase his weight and to stabilize it. That meant trying to reduce the regurgitation or even dreaming of stopping it, ending with the ability to place him back into the shows. For this, we decided to have all sessions on dry land first (because he was only regurgitating when he was in the water).

Very quickly we realized that even one hour away from water access, after a feeding session, was not enough time to stop regurgitation. Since he kept on regurgitating the moment he had access to water, we decided to go to four hours after a session with no water access to make sure he could not possibly regurgitate.

However, the regurgitation continued. When his weight dropped down to 86 Kg (189.5 lb) in November, it became often necessary to keep him the whole day away from the water, to make sure he received the necessary nutrients.

Around that time he had a third seizure. The conclusion was now that the seizures were actually due to hypoglycemia. However, our veterinarians did not reject the possibility of an epileptic seizure. As a trial, our vets decided to give him anti-epileptic drugs, to see if it would have an effect. Gipsy went three weeks without a seizure but he continued to regurgitate. So they decided to do a connective study to check the concentration of the drugs in his blood to determine efficacy. The results showed that he was not absorbing the drugs at all (everything was just regurgitated back). Because there had been no seizures, there was no use to continue with this kind of treatment. To prevent his weight from dropping, we decided to hold him two entire weeks with no access to water, just to help him retain his food and not regurgitate. But, as one can imagine, this was not the best solution.

Approach #2; Training

Because you can’t keep an animal permanently on dry land, we decided to start a second approach based this time on training. Apparently, Gipsy’s problem was not as much medical as behavioral and probably much more related to his activity level or his social situation. We decided to train a lot of new behaviors and spent a lot of time with him during extra sessions.

In our institution we have 12 animals in total and we have a team of five trainers with generally only three trainers working per day. We decided to dedicate two staff persons, full-time, alternatively during the day, to the training of Gipsy. Our goal was to try to have a 3 to 7 minute training session every 10 minutes. The final goal was to keep Gipsy as stimulated as possible. At the time we were still keeping him a lot on dry land and, to keep his mind occupied, we trained a lot of new behaviors, going beyond show and medical behaviors (see Photo 5 in slideshow on this page), where he had learned so many new things and had become so proficient, to behaviors that were absolutely unnecessary. The goal was just to keep him occupied in training: for example, and among others, playing tennis, finding objects, or playing with forms (see Photo 6 in slideshow on this page). We even defined the number of new behaviors he had to learn per week, or per so many days, to keep both the staff and Gypsy moving forward.

We also started to reintroduce access to water, letting him go two or three seconds in the water, without control, after a finish SD, and then calling him back and reinforcing him heavily when he had not regurgitated. However, very quickly, we saw that the animal anticipated this. And every time he did go to the water, or most of the time, he would regurgitate. We were also extremely strict in our use of operant conditioning. If he left his trainer to go to the water, we would stop the session and interaction for the rest of the day. We wanted the animal to learn that he had no reward if he was leaving his trainer. He has to stay with his trainer to keep interacting and to be reinforced. We also decided to keep him two full days per week with no access to water at all to make sure that he would receive enough food.

We knew we had reached our main goal, using this approach, because we were able to increase his weight and maintain it. Neither did he have any more epileptic-like seizures (so it was indeed probably not epilepsy, but more due to hypoglycemia). At this point, we can say we had saved his life. However, we were still not successful in reducing the regurgitation because each time he had access to the water, or when he knew he could gain access to it, he would enter it and start regurgitating right away. We also noticed that socially, this was not something good because the animal was completely separated from the rest of the sea lion group in order to have access to the trainers all the time.


As an answer to our hypothesis, we cannot say that lack of stimulation was really the ONLY problem. Because he was kept very, very busy, but more that his regurgitation was becoming more and more self-reinforcing, and more interesting to him than training with us. But we still had a lot of other tasks to do in our park, and it was very difficult to dedicate two full persons (out of a staff of three per day) the whole day to only one animal, constantly. As we realized this was a permanent problem, we decided to work on a third approach.

Approach #3; Observations and Satiation

We were definitely convinced that regurgitation was the consequence of an extremely highly self-reinforcing behavior. Based on a paper that was presented years ago by Tish Flynn during an IMATA conference, on the treatment of a regurgitation problem in a walrus by satiation, and recommended by our consultant Dr. Geraldine Lacave, we decided to use satiation to try to fix the problem.

We wanted the trainers to go back to their original tasks because we still had the other animals to take care of. We also wanted to let the animal go back with the rest of the group and have access to the water again. Therefore, we decided to hire interns to observe Gipsy non-stop when he was with the other animals, when he was alone, when he was working with us, when he was on dry land, during shows, during resting time, in the main pool, backstage, etc., literally all the time. Interns recorded those observations on charts, in an attempt to determine if there was a trend in his regurgitation problem.

After the first month of observations, and preliminary results, we decided to implement our third approach. Meanwhile, we had kept on doing all those extra training sessions as before, however now we would offer him a huge container of fish, up to 20 Kg (44 lb) at once, everyday (see Photo 7 & 8 in slideshow on this page). Since we wanted to offer him much, much more fish than before, we also developed many, many more secondary reinforcements or ways for him to have access to food through toys, games, and enrichments. With these observations, we gathered a huge amount of data, kilometers and kilometers (miles and miles) of data.

The first month of observations confirmed that there was no correlation between trainers, time of the day, nor pool, but that he was indeed regurgitating when going to the water and this amounted to 42% of the time. It also showed that other nearby animals were, actually, very beneficial in the situation. Two females in particular who were always trying to go behind him to have access to his regurgitated fish. When they were with him, he regurgitated less, because he did not want them to have his fish. Using this group setup was, for example, one of our means to diminish regurgitation frequency. Those observation charts further helped us to objectively quantify his regurgitation frequency. Within one month of implementation of the satiation protocol, his regurgitating time in the water dropped from 42% to 12%. For the first time since the summer of 2009, Gipsy spent several days without regurgitating.

But we also made some mistakes along the way, and learned from them. First mistake, the animal was receiving his full-fish-container backstage. At the beginning, we used to give this huge container on a daily basis. However, the animal quickly figured this out and started to refuse to go out, even after long working sessions with a lot of primary reinforcement, if he did not receive his full-fish-container afterwards. We then started to randomly give the container and recaptured our control of the animal’s leaving the area.

In two years time his weight increased incredibly going from 86 kg to 150 kg (189.5 to 330.7 lbs) (see Photo 9 in slideshow on this page). But our second mistake during the summer of 2010 was to reduce the number of ‘jackpot’-fish-containers over time as we thought we had fixed the problem. As a result, the animal started to regurgitate more again and lose weight gradually. We realized it is very important and necessary to maintain those satiation containers on a regular basis to maintain his weight.

As a conclusion of our third approach, we can say that the satiation program worked very well with this particular animal. All our objectives were reached; Gipsy is alive and healthy. The protocol helped in controlling his weight loss. Gipsy, who is a very important animal for our shows, resumed participating in these, started interacting more with the other animals, and gained back his place in our social group (see Photo 10 in slideshow on this page). However, this is not a win-win situation, but a give and take. Often after a huge fish container the animal would be so full he would not come over for a session but would rather just go out to a rock and stay in the sun for hours. And for us this is acceptable because, indeed, at that time, he is not regurgitating.

What about now?

Gipsy is now stable, and even reached 160 kg (352.7 lb) this summer. We continue to teach him a lot of new behaviors to occupy his mind. He now seldom leaves the show or a training session to regurgitate. But we are still very watchful with him and continue to note all that happens. At this point, he often likes to play with the last fish of his session but he is far from regurgitating like he was doing before.

General conclusion

Regurgitation is a complex behavior to control. We probably will never completely eliminate the regurgitation behavior in an animal. It’s important to try to diminish it as much as possible and to make sure that the animal is not losing more calories than he is absorbing. Observations and team communication are extremely important to assess the gravity of the problem objectively. The satiation approach worked very well in our case. However, we found out that it is a permanent treatment. It should never be stopped. It became apparent to us that an animal with such a problem needs to have a higher percentage of his time filled with occupational activities, training, and enrichment to diminish the self-reinforcing behavior of regurgitating. And finally, never give up. In our situation we really thought Gipsy was dead and we really thought we had lost him!


Flynn, T. (1987). Conditions and treatment of an eating disorder in a Pacific walrus – an anecdotal report. Proceedings of the 15th annual IMATA conference, New Orleans (pp, 39-46).

Editor's Note: This paper received the following award during the 35th IMATA conference at Indianapolis, IN: the 2nd place Husbandry Training Award.