Field Note: Harbor Seal

Three harbor seals share the water at the zoo's Kovler Sea Lion Pool.

Three harbor seals share the water at the zoo's Kovler Sea Lion Pool.

Fishy Treats Fuel Daily Check-Ups

While it comes to seal societies, harbor seals tend toward the solitary end of the scale. The images you see of thousands of seals hauled out on the rocks, barking, bouncing and generally having what seems to be a big pinniped party? Those aren’t harbor seals.

Harbor seals typically swim alone. They’ll gather in little groups, occasionally sharing a rocky shoreline or iceberg as they splash out of the water for pupping or their seasonal molt. But much of their time is spent in solitary hunts, submerging themselves to hundreds of feet for minutes at a time in search of fish to eat.

The three harbor seals that moved into the Kovler Sea Lion Pool in May 2013 don’t have to do any hunting in the traditional sense. Animal care experts provide daily nutritious meals of herring and capelin. But many of these scaly snacks are delivered during twice-daily operant-conditioning sessions, meaning the seals are moving for their meals after all.

The sessions are voluntary, of course. Even if the seals didn’t participate, they would still receive their full diet. But the public displays, which take place at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, offer the animals some extra enrichment—and a chance to participate in their own care. With a whistle, a target and a fishy reward guiding the action, keepers have the males stretch on the rocks, extend their flippers and roll over for inspection. The close looks help ensure the aquatic animals stay healthy.

A zookeeper inspects a seal at one of the voluntary daily operant-conditioning sessions.

Zookeeper Allycia Darst inspects a seal at one of the voluntary daily operant-conditioning sessions.

And it’s fun too. “These guys were new to enrichment sessions when they arrived, so we took it slow to start,” says Curator of Mammals Mark Kamhout. “But they’ve really gotten comfortable with the area and the process. It’s fun to see them participating.”

 

By James Seidler • Published May 30, 2014 • Originally published in Summer 2013 Lincoln Park Zoo Magazine


Learn More

Seal Training and Feeding
What do the zoo’s harbor seals learn in their daily training sessions? Curator of Mammals Mark Kamhout offers an inside look in this special video.


A fresh, fishy snack makes for an encouraging rewarding during daily seal training and enrichment sessions.

Seal Enrichment Slideshow
Twice a day the zoo’s harbor seals participate in voluntary training sessions—and receive scaly treats for doing so! See the process with a special slideshow.

One of the harbor seals peers out of his new home. Photo by Megan Ross.

Post from the President—New Seals Swimming
President and CEO Kevin Bell shares the zoo's newest arrivals: three harbor seals from Sea World. See how the new group is making a splash.