Kids Make Playthings For Aquarium's Critters

'Highly Intelligent' Animals Get Toys For Enrichment

August 09, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,

It was birthday time for Bayley, a 1-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, but the birds, dogs and cats were getting all the presents Saturday at the National Aquarium.

Bayley has come a long way from the helpless calf with a large head and tiny body born at the Baltimore aquarium last year. Now she's a growing and inquisitive dolphin that has joined the aquarium's popular show ahead of some of her older peers, learning new tricks and trying her best to duplicate her mother's jumps.

That's in part because animal care staff keep her busy with what they call enrichment activities, organized play designed to encourage natural behaviors and stimulate development, said Sue Hunter, director of animal programs. To help illustrate the importance of such enrichment, aquarium staff invited children and their parents to help build toys for the aquarium's parrots, cockatoos and macaws, as well as their own dogs and cats.

"Whether an animal is at home, or a farm, or an aquarium, it's important that they're provided activities that are within their nature," Hunter said.

In a side classroom, Berrit Miller, 5, of Gettysburg, Pa., made a paper bag poked with holes and wrapped it with a blue ribbon to keep a Milkbone biscuit inside for her pet dog, a mastiff named Honeybun.

Later, Justine Marano, 4, of Philadelphia swung a toy she made for an aquarium bird - green, orange and yellow blocks strung on a line of twine - while her father, Domenic, captured the action on a camcorder. The toys keep the birds from chewing on their feathers or their cages.

"You're helping the aquarium," Justine's mother, Wendy, told her.

The animals at the aquarium keep busy in different ways, Hunter said. The monkeys may forage through insect feeders, while the octopuses feel through PVC tubing for hidden shrimp or open plastic containers with pop lids.

Bayley's toys don't require much assembly. To keep her and the aquarium's 10 other dolphins stimulated, trainers have them swim through or carry hoops, or push around basketballs partially filled with sand or water so they sink.

"The whole point is to get them interacting with something other than their trainers," trainer Crystal Mumaw said. "They're highly intelligent animals, so it's a challenge to come up with something that's going to be new and different."

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