Special Feature: Otter Kits at SeaWorld
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM SIMON
At SeaWorld, we've been successfully raising animal babies for a long time now. One of the reasons we've been so successful is that we have compiled decades of animal care and animal training expertise and we actively apply that experience across our parks. The best lesson, however, that we've picked up over the years is that there is always more to learn. A recent experience with a pair of our Asian river otters is a perfect example...
Simon and Sophie, a pair of Asian river otters, were preparing to have their second litter of otter kits. ("Kit" is the proper term for an otter baby.) This was to be a key event for our animal training staff because, for the second time, we were going to be leaving the adult male otter, Simon, with the adult female otter, Sophie, throughout the birthing process and through the days immediately following. At first glance, this may not seem earth shattering, but such an decision was contrary to the conventional wisdom of Asian river otter care. For certain otter species, it is known that the adult males can prove an adverse presence at and immediately following the birth of their kits. Accordingly, we have historically segregated adult male Asian river otters during the birth of, and for the first several days following, the emergence of their kits. However, after much discussion amongst our SeaWorld parks and with other AZA accredited zoological facilities with histories in rearing Asian river otters, we began to suspect that this otter species might be a special case.
For Simon and Sophie's first litter, our animal training team decided to go against conventional wisdom and leave Simon with Sophie while she gave birth. Sophie gave birth to two otter kits and, to our delight, Simon proved to be a protective father, frequently positioning himself at the den entrance where he appeared to be standing sentry over mother and kits. Beyond Simon's role as den sentry, we had little direct observation of what interactions, if any, he was having with the kits inside of the den facility. Simon did provide a tantalizing hint as to his level of engagement with the kits as, occasionally, he would bring a baby to the den entrance, as if showing off his babies to our animal training staff. He would soon disappear, however, back into the den and we would have to revert to speculation as to what Simon was doing inside the den. All of that changed with Simon and Sophie's second litter of otter kits.
This time around, our animal training staff decided to mount an unobtrusive observation camera within the den, providing us for the first time the ability to directly observe the birth, grooming, feeding, nursing and other social behaviors of the baby otters. The insight provided us by this camera was, frankly, astounding. We were able to see, first-hand, that Simon was exceptionally involved throughout the birth and rearing of the kits - taking extraordinary care of both the otter babies and his mate, Sophie. For example, as Sophie was giving birth, Simon would take each emerging kit from Sophie and hold, bond, clean and "cuddle" with the newborns as Sophie gave birth to the next baby. The following morning, Simon ventured outside the den and we provided him with fish to eat. However, he did not immediately eat it. Instead, via the observation camera, we watched Simon bring the fish into the den and lay the food before Sophie. As she was eating, Simon would hold, preen and bond with his kits. Only when Sophie was finished would he return the kits and finally feed himself. If Sophie would leave the den for whatever reason, Simon would stay with his young. He would wrap them all in his paws and sleep with them until Sophie returned. It was becoming clear to our animal training staff that Simon was far more than a casual participant. He was proving to be an involved and dedicated father.
Simon continued to reinforce our new estimation of him as an active, vital parent. Whether it was cleaning, moving, cuddling or teaching the young, Simon was hyper-involved with every aspect of their care and development. His individual example proved inspiring for members of our animal training team, but perhaps just as important, Simon showed our staff that, for Asian river otters at least, we can and will be altering the manner in which we handle the birth of kits on a going forward basis. This is a lesson with far reaching implications, not just within the SeaWorld parks, but within other zoological facilities with whom we have and will continue to share this new insight. Simon, in simply being a caring father, taught us all something truly valuable.
WHAT'S WITH THE TOWELS?
For otters, rubbing on dirt, sand, grass and other surfaces is as much social as it is physical. While the rubbing action helps to clean their fur, it is also a regular part of social bonding among otters. At SeaWorld, we have found that towels seem to be a favorite rubbing surface for our otters. As such, as part of our effort to build trust and a strong bond with the otters, animal trainers will frequently take a towel or two into the otter habitat. We will sit on the ground - often with the towels draped over our legs - and encourage the otters to rub on the towel with us. We have found this simple act to be very effective in building a positive relationship between our animal training staff and our otters. Frankly, it's hard to say who finds "towel time" more reinforcing, the otters or our staff. Even for us, it's not every day you get a baby otter to lay in you lap.
IS THAT A KIDDIE POOL?
If you find yourself looking at the video and wondering aloud, "Is that a turtle kiddie pool in there with the otters?", you would be correct. Several weeks after the birth of the kits, SeaWorld staff provide our otter parents (in this case, Simon and Sophie) with temporary, shallow water pools in which to teach their young how to swim. Our animal trainers will initially fill the teaching pool with just a few inches of water - providing a safe, accessible environment in which the otter parents may introduce their kits to the basics of swimming. As you might imagine, this is always an exciting time for our staff, watching mom and dad otter bring their young out of the den and introduce them to water for the first time. In the case of Simon and Sophie's kits, we were very interested to see the distinct roles that each parent plays during this process. Sophie would bring a kit out from the den and place him/her in the temporary learning pool. As the kit would explore the water, he/she might get a bit nervous and call out (much as a human child might fuss a bit when first getting used to the water). If the kit did begin to call out, invariably the otter parent who would respond was Simon. He would run over to the pool and pluck the noisy kit out of the water. Interestingly, Sophie would respond by simply going back to the den and retrieving yet another kit to bring to the learning pool and the whole process would play out before us again.
Once the otter kits are totally comfortable swimming in the learning pool, their parents will lead them to the larger, deeper pool that is a permanent fixture in their habitat. Again, in the specific case of Simon and Sophie, Sophie would lead her kits to the shallow corner of the habitat pool (the deep, blue pool in the video). The kits would enter the shallow portion, but did not appear to be particularly inclined to jump out into the deeper water. After observing this perceived reluctance, our staff decided to place the learning pool within the body of the habitat pool, rather like a floating island. Almost immediately, the baby otters began to climb into the floating learning pool and would then began to venture from there into the habitat pool itself. Within a week, the kits were swimming about the habitat pool just like their parents.
If you have a question about otters and/or how SeaWorld cares for them, please reach out and ASK SHAMU.
If you would like to comment on the otter kit video, please go to the SeaWorld YouTube channel and let us know what you think.