As a keeper, I get asked from time to time what my favorite animal to work with is. That would be a river otter named Admiral. Unfortunately, Admiral passed away in 2011 at the age of 21, which at the time was the oldest recorded river otter in conservation care.
Photo by Catina Link
Admiral first came to the Zoo in the early 1990s. I got to work with him as a volunteer and again in 2004 when I was hired as a keeper. As part of the Zoo’s Training Committee, I started training him three years later to “target” to different areas of the exhibit as well as get a monthly weight. It was a small challenge for me as Admiral was 17 at the time and had almost no formal training and it was my first animal to train at the Zoo.
I watched the tiger and sea lion trainers to get a few ideas on how to start. Admiral, who already looked forward to our training sessions was able to target through protective contact (we had a mesh barrier between us) in just two weeks. Then I got him used to standing on the scale so I could get his weight. He did so well with his training I decided to continue and see what else I could teach him!
I wanted to try to begin an otter demo to show everyone how amazing otters are. I worked with him five days a week through winter and spring on exhibit, to spin and go in and out of the water, stand on a tree stump and target to my hand. It was a success and everyone loved it! The following summer, in 2009, I taught him how to present his left and right sides and left and right paws, how to lay on his back and hold that position while I checked his paws, and how to do the dive off the rock waterfall into the upper otter pool.
Also during this time, he participated in three different studies for the Rochester Institute of Technology, including an enrichment study with objects or food items Admiral was most interested in. Aside from training and attention, he loved enrichment. His favorite was live fish. Admiral also loved snow and would jump in and out of deep snow piles and slide all over on his belly.
I also had him start painting for our chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers’ annual Animal Art Expo benefit. It took a few tries – he had to get used to the smell of paint, but once he started he did a great job and provided us with many paintings over the past few years. That fall we got a surprise. The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign wanted to use Admiral in their commercial. When I asked my supervisor what to train Admiral to do, he told me to have him drop a dollar bill into the kettle. I was puzzled at first on how to get Admiral to take a dollar with his mouth, but after a week he finally accomplished it. The commercial turned out to be a success. About a month later, our female otters Heather and Sara came to join Admiral from the Jacksonville Zoo – Admiral liked them right away!
That summer, Admiral still did the training demo. For our new behaviors I taught him to wave hello and I also modified the Red Kettle behavior so instead of dropping a dollar bill into the bucket, I now had him taking a folded up newspaper and dropping it into the recycle box. In 2011 we celebrated Admiral’s 21st birthday. He still loved his training but I was now working in the exhibit with Heather and Sara and gave Admiral a break from doing the demo every day and had Heather and Sara now be the stars. I would train with Admiral first and once we were finished he would go off to his hollow log to take a nap and I would let Heather or Sara out and we would do the demo.
I’m so fortunate to have been assigned to work with this amazing otter. His enthusiasm and love of training made it possible for me to me to start the first otter training demo, be in a commercial and gain respect from other otter keepers. Admiral is and always will be my favorite animal and best animal friend.
- Catina Link, zoo keeper