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.