Don't bite the hand that checks you
Taronga Park Zoo has been running a program to train seals so they help their keepers when they need a health check.PT2M26S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2suw2 620 349 August 30, 2013
It isn't surprising that seals can be trained to roll over, shake hands and play dead, much like their land-dwelling counterpart, the dog. But Taronga Zoo's fur seal Ronnie has been taught skills that could save his life.
The five-year-old New Zealand fur seal lay quietly as senior seal trainer Brad McKenzie checked his teeth, inspected his flippers and even lifted his eyelids in search of injury.
Rewarded with a fishy treat and a pat on the head, Ronnie has finished his morning check up.
"If we suspect there is a tooth problem such as a fish bone stuck in his lip, historically we would have had to anaesthetize the animal to discover it. Now we can just lift his lip," said Mr McKenzie.
It may look like circus tricks, but this animal husbandry program has had several practical benefits.
The animals' willingness to cooperate during day-to-day check ups has dramatically reduced the need to administer general anaesthetics.
A procedure that might have previously taken an entire day can now be completed in 10 minutes.
This training is extending beyond the seal pool to nearly every animal in the zoo. Tigers and komodo dragons have been among the most cooperative animals. Even lions have been trained to back their behinds up to a mesh fence in readiness for an injection.
Taronga's seal harem is particularly well-trained in this area.
''As highly inquisitive animals, introducing seals to new tools when they're in the medical room can be problematic,'' says Mr McKenzie.
''So we try to desensitise them to the equipment so that the process becomes one based on trust and habit rather than fear''.
Over several weeks, trainers put seals through mock medical procedures, using tourniquets and x-ray tables, and wearing lead radiologists' gowns.
That means when it comes to the real thing, the seals seem happy to cooperate - knowing there is a reward for good behaviour on the other side.
Taronga's behavioural biologist Dr Vicky Melfi says the cooperative training techniques can apply to all animals if the trainer maintains a flexible approach.
''Training is about communicating, you're telling an animal where you want it to go or what you want it to learn. So if it's not working you need to look to yourself first.''