Field Note: Harbor Seal
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.
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
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.
Seal Enrichment Slideshow
Post from the President—New Seals Swimming