Sea Lion Participate in Blood Draw
At Coral World, our sea lions participate in their own health care. One of the most important health-related, or “husbandry,” behaviors they perform is a voluntary blood draw. Drawing blood is extremely beneficial to the sea lions’ veterinary staff, just as it is to any person’s doctor. By analyzing an animal’s blood, trainers can proactively see illnesses or other health problems, measure testosterone during breeding season, monitor a female animal’s pregnancy, or measure the success of medication.
All of us have been to the doctor, and holding still for a blood sample is not too much fun. It doesn’t feel any better if you’re a sea lion. So how, you might ask, do we get a sample? The answer, of course, is to train them. We don’t catch them with nets or cages, we don’t shoot them with tranquilizer darts, and we don’t trick them in any way. By training the animals to participate in the blood draw voluntarily, it keeps the entire experience positive and non-invasive.
As behaviors go, a blood draw is relatively simple to train. The sea lion doesn’t have to jump, move a body part, or balance anything. He just has to sit there and do nothing. It’s really the easiest behavior there is. As trainers, our job is simply to reward him for sitting still. No matter where we move or how we touch him, he knows that nothing bad will happen to him, and he gets a lot of praise, petting, and food for just sitting still. Through time and experience he becomes very comfortable with all sorts of movements and touches.
Eventually, we introduce the materials needed to draw blood (the same things you’re used to seeing when a doctor draws your blood). Alcohol swabs, test tubes, and a small needle. At any point during the training, the sea lion knows he can swim or walk away if he becomes uncomfortable. If he does, he’s not in trouble. This is how he tells us he’s not quite ready yet, and is a signal to the trainer to take our time and build up his confidence some more. It takes a lot of time and patience from both animal and trainer, but eventually we are able to get success. Once the behavior is trained, we work tirelessly to keep the focus positive for the animal’s entire life. High quality veterinary care and positive experiences are both of the utmost importance for our sea lion family, and training voluntary blood draws allow us to accomplish both.