Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Middle Flipper Is (Part 14).......

....a seal who royally messes with your mind.

A sealfie.  Teehee.

The subject of this particular Middle Flipper entry goes by the name of Milo.  He is a young harbor seal and he has quite the list of personality quirks.  In fact, I think Milo collects bizarre personality traits for a living, which further adds to my belief that he is a genius who is borderline eccentric.  

If Milo were a person,  he'd probably have a PhD in human psychology, specifically looking into how the brain responds to PERCEIVED reality.  Why do I think this? 

Because as you can see, he has a THIRD EYE.  Bahahaha. (Yes, that's a fish eye on his head)

Because Milo messes with our heads all the time.

If he were a human, I imagine he would dress in ornate smoking jackets with paisley prints.  These jackets would be real expensive and he'd only wear them once, because he wouldn't be caught dead in the same thing twice.  Sometimes, he'd wear glasses with quirky frames, like bright colored ones or ones with crazy patterns.  Sure, he's colorblind like all the rest of the seals on the planet, but he'd argue that should NEVER get in the way of fashionable accessories. 

Milo, personified.

His trainers, especially the ones who have known him since he was a pup, are very tuned in to Milo's deeply complex self and desire for self expression.  Milo has the largest collection of wearable accessories of anyone I know who makes less than $700,000 a year*.  He boasts a wide range of seasonal hats that compliment his handsome, dark look and big, expressive eyes.  

The Jake Owen look is a favorite of Milo's

"Sure," some of you may be saying.  "Your seal can wear a hat for a few seconds.  Big deal. I know a lot of animals who can do that."

So okay, in and of itself, Milo's fashion collection is not an impressive feat of training nor does it adequately show his uniqueness.  In order for you to fully appreciate this boy, let's look at some of his other components.

He is a Red Sox fan.

First of all, Milo is sensitive.  Deeply, deeply sensitive.  I mean, what eccentric genius isn't?  Harbor seals are not necessarily known collectively for their austere bravery.  I mean, they are pretty much giant snacks in their native habitats for sharks, orcas, and occasionally other species of seals.  Harbor seals have all the right in the world to be skittish little nuggets.  But what tends to set Milo apart are the other, less obvious stimuli that send him into a tizzy.  Here is a little list:

1) Kids playing in a sandbox.  We have a sandbox next to his exhibit.  This sandbox is next to the sand, because we are literally right on the beach.  There is sand everywhere.  Milo can see sand and the Gulf of Mexico for as far as the eye can see in either direction.  Sand sand sand.  Kids and adults play in the beach sand all day, and that is perfectly acceptable.  But oh, a kid in a sand BOX?  NO.  UNNATURAL.  He can't take it. 

Sorry, I don't DO sandboxes

2) "Random" birds that fly over or near the habitat.  Like I said, we're on the beach.  There are laughing gulls, pelicans, sparrows, pigeons, grackles, crows, egrets and herons that frequent the rooftops of all of our habitats throughout the facility because of Favorite Bird Snacks such as capelin and popcorn.  It's not every bird that freaks Milo out.  It's apparently certain ones.  Maybe Milo has a superstitious number, like 87.  Maybe it's a test, to see if humans can pick up on seemingly-random patterns.  Or perhaps, certain birds simply appear suspicious to him, which I can understand because let's face it, some birds are just malevolent.

Ooookay, I'm not sleeping for a few nights.

3) Especially that one particular blue heron, who Milo can tell apart from all the other blue herons in North America, who just sits and stares at him all day.


4) Beards are the worst thing ever, according to Milo.   In fact, he may argue that some humans have far too many oddly-formed whiskers.  There is nothing pleasant about a bearded man, according to our seal friend. 

Okay, this is a pretty strong case for a pro-beardage

5) Middle-aged men doing tai chi on the beach cannot be tolerated and are simply a cause for massive distraction and panicked speed-swimming.  "Go balance your chi somewhere else," Milo seems to say. 

Unsure of Milo's opinion on pandas doing tai chi, but I'll keep you all posted.

Here's the thing: I don't think Milo is genuinely afraid of these things.**  I think he picks these particular items in order to gauge the human response, especially that of his trainers.  At the end of each session, depending on what's happened, he probably analyzes his findings with the two other seals he lives with, Priscilla and Augustina.

Milo: Human subject 14, trial 759: Subject appeared startled at my sudden, fixated stare into the distance.
Priscilla: What do you think it means?
Milo: I don't care to speculate on causation, but I will acknowledge personal satisfaction in the alarmed facial expression my behavior elicited.

My data set on humans is THIISSSSS BIIIIIG

But if Milo IS in fact terrified of the aforementioned stimuli, it makes no sense to me that he is (and has always been) 100% fine wearing hats.  No matter what the hat is, or how many doohickies and wangdoodles it has bouncing around or dangling near his face, he will wear it calmly, as if reveling in his fashionable glory.   Man slowly moving his arms 600 feet away on the beach? Unacceptable and cause for cardiac infarction.  Wearing a hat with sequins, blinking lights and fireworks shooting out of it?***  FABULOUS.

The other element to this seal's deep complexity is that I see evidence all the time of his intelligence.  Right now, you probably think he's a scaredy-cat who loves high fashion.  Maybe he has a slightly crafty side.   

The drool on the chin really completes this look

However, he does one particular thing that truly shows his smarts.

Milo has giant eyes that see everything.  He can spot that Evil Heron from a quarter of a mile away and detect beards from twice that distance.  He is always on Red Alert.  

When doing a training session with him in the water, sometimes we toss fish to him in there, which he gobbles up.  We feed variably in the water and sometimes to help train and/or maintain perimeter behaviors, his "stay" while in water, or during aerials.  All we do is toss fish to him and gulp, down they go.  Or so we'd like.

The thing is, about 60% of the time, Milo "doesn't see" the fish we throw to him.  He will detect the slightest changes in a target pole.  He'll see a Terrifying Seagull flying at 5,000 feet in the air for a split second.  But he won't see the giant herring you throw directly towards his face.  

What? No, you didn't throw any fish.

When I first encountered this problem, I thought he'd simply missed it.  I threw him another fish, this time more carefully aimed at his head towards his vibrissae.  I figured his sensitive whiskers would detect his food.  I even went as far as to dip target poles into the water to guide him to the falling fish, thinking this was a failsafe solution.  But I was wrong.  Milo simply acted like the fish did not exist.  

Over the last two years I've watched this animal receive fish in the water both in and out of session, sometimes actually hitting him (gently of course) around the head and face.  Still, most of the time he pretends like nothing ever happened, looking at you quizzically with those large seal eyes as if to say, "What? What's next?"

After these failed feedings, I'd descend into the back area of Milo's world (an enclosed area that does not provide any view into the seal habitat) to get something to get the fallen fish out of the pool. But by the time I got what I needed, the fish was gone.  All gone.  And all three seals just swim around like nothing every happened.

I simply have no memory of this fish you claim you've placed in the water.

Up until recently, I chalked this up to one of two possibilities: 

1) The seal habitat has a large amount of turnover, so I figured the fish quickly slide down the sloped sides of the pool and are funneled to the powerful drain.  

2) I was in some kind of Inception scenario where the fish weren't really real, or I wasn't really real, or I was actually dreaming and I'd wake up and learn I was in a coma for 30 years or something.

But I've finally figured out what's actually happening.

The second humans disappear from view, Milo quickly swims around and eats all the fish he allegedly missed.

Have the humans vacated the premises?

That's right.  While Milo plays dumb as us well-intended humans try to reinforce him in the water, he is actually keeping very, very close track of where the fish is going.  He pretends to not see them, and continues to eat his fill and play with his trainer until they leave to collect the dropped fish.  Then, he goes on a jolly seal-version of an Easter egg hunt and finds his bonus snacks here and there. 

That takes a lot of smarts.  To deceive another is a pretty clear sign of intelligence, if you ask me.  It's a subtle middle flipper from Milo, reminding us of two things: 1) Dolphins don't get all the first place prizes when it comes to smarts, and 2) humans share this planet with some pretty savvy critters.  Another lesson I'm happy to learn, and look forward to learning again and again :)

Who needs a smoking jacket when you have this handsome summer coat?

* Hint: I know roughly 0 people who make anything close to that

** Like cats, who just freak the heck out for no apparent reason because they want you to remember that they control everything about you, including your sympathetic nervous responses.

*** This hat does not actually exist.

1 comment:

  1. This really makes me want to work with seals (not that I didn't want to before)! Your blog is amazing and so full of guidance for future animal caretakers- Thank you!