Crew fashions toys to suit animal tastes

Elves go to work at the aquarium

December 19, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

Children are not the only ones getting toys this Christmas.

At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a room normally used to hold classes for visitors was turned yesterday into a version of Santa's workshop, in which staff members and volunteers - a few in elves' hats - made dozens of toys and gadgets to keep the aquarium's tenants occupied, focused and happy.

"We'll make toys or objects for the animals that stimulate some of their natural foraging behavior," said Crystal Mumaw, a marine mammal trainer, as festive antlers bobbed on her head. "We always want to keep them surprised."

She was making hula-hoops out of garden hose - some filled with sand so they will sink to the bottom of the pool - for the aquarium's nine adult Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, who like to play fetch and tug of war with the larger hoops and put the smaller ones on their dorsal fins as they swim around.

Mumaw was trying something new - attaching long strips of material, of the kind used in car washes, to some of the hoops to mimic kelp beds found in oceans and to make the hoops more interesting for the dolphins. The idea is to hide fish or other treats in the "kelp" to trigger the dolphins' instinct to hunt for food.

PVC pipe was being cut into noisemakers - with hard, uncooked noodles rattling inside - for the parrots, as well as into small tubes for the sloths, who are encouraged to "go in there and look for food," Mumaw said. And for the bats? Boards covered with fake grass, in which berries are hidden.

"An animal would rather hunt for its food," said Beth Lindenau, a trainer who works with birds and reptiles. "It's evolved over millions of years to spend most of its day doing nothing more than looking for food. If you take that away from them, you get not just boredom but they could develop stereotypical behavior that indicates the animal is not thriving. So these tools promote the ability for them to use as much natural behavior as is safe in this environment."

Some of the training, known as "cognitive enrichment," is designed to give animals "a sense of control," Lindenau said.

Megan Dunn, an aviculturist whose main duties involve caring for birds in the Animal Planet Australia exhibit, was overseeing toys for the aquarium's myriad birds, including Amazon parrots, cockatoos, sun conures, macaws, kookaburra birds and flying foxes - the latter are members of the bat family, with 4-foot wing spans. The bats, which have a keen sense of hearing, like toys that make noise.

"You have to use your imagination," Dunn said. "You have to research what they do in the wild so you can tailor these enrichment items to them."

Dunn's colleague Liz Evans was cutting leather, with some difficulty, into strips for the parrots, who keep their rock-hard beaks busy by chewing on things. They are also fond of strips of newspaper, which makes a nice crinkling sound, and wood, which they snap and spit out.

The staff members and volunteers were also repairing used toys. Some of the older hula-hoops, for instance, showed clear signs of nibbling by dolphins, and were getting a new lease on life with fresh duct tape, wrapped tightly.

Connie Moore, a retired operating-room nurse who has volunteered at the aquarium for two years, said it was wonderful to see how engaged the animals are with their surroundings and playthings. As she improvised a rattling toy for a bird, Moore recalled being part of a team taking turns a few months ago observing from a glass-walled enclosure the progress of a pregnant dolphin named Jade.

As Moore took notes on a Palm Pilot, which emits a small amount of light, several dolphins "had to come over and look at it," she said. "They want to know about everything."

The dolphin calf, incidentally, was born on Sept. 9, and was just given a name this week - Foster.

Since Jade is a first-time mom, two of her pool mates, Chesapeake and Shiloh - who are mother and daughter - are helping her "with all of her motherly duties," the aquarium's Web site says. "Trainers feel lucky to have Chesapeake and Shiloh showing her the ropes of motherhood."

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