Improving Welfare Through Animal Behavior

As experts in animal behavior, the Aquarium's behavioral husbandry team assists staff throughout the organization in developing individualized training plans for countless Aquarium animals. How exactly do they do it?

  • Animals

If you've ever been in the Aquarium's Harbor Overlook area in the early afternoon, you may be familiar with ambassador animals such as Oscar the prehensile-tailed skink, Joey the yellow-footed tortoise and Dratini the bearded dragon, a few of the stars of our daily Animal Encounter presentations. But what you may not be familiar with is the team that cares for these animals—or their behind-the-scenes work that extends far beyond the Harbor Overlook.

In addition to caring for and training our ambassador animals, the Aquarium's behavioral husbandry team also consults with animal care staff throughout the organization, helping them to brainstorm enrichment ideas and develop individualized training plans for countless Aquarium animals. As experts in animal behavior, this small but mighty team provides the necessary resources so that staff can succeed in meeting animals' behavioral needs—a key aspect of animal welfare. But how exactly do they do it?

When it comes to behavioral training for animals, there are several schools of thought. Here at the Aquarium, the behavioral husbandry team uses a method called operant conditioning with a focus on positive reinforcement.

"It all has to do with consequences and the balance of increasing certain behavior through reinforcement instead of decreasing that behavior through punishment," Manager of Behavioral Husbandry and Animal Programs Liz Evans explained.

According to Liz, most animals find food reinforcing, so it's oftentimes an easy reward to incorporate into training. For some animals, though, food isn't quite motivating enough, and so the challenge becomes figuring out what they do want so that the team can use it as positive reinforcement to modify their behavior. Sometimes, the team incorporates secondary reinforcers along with food in an animal's training. For example, Joey the yellow-footed tortoise enjoys shell scratches, so the team uses this physical contact as an additional reinforcer along with food when he's learning a new behavior.

Joey the Yellow-Footed Tortoise Receives Food From Staff in Front of a Tunnel During a Training Session

It's much easier to train an animal to do something than to not do something, according to Liz. Take the diamondback terrapins in our care as an example. Feeding multiple animals at a time on exhibit was a challenge, so our team trained each turtle to swim to a different colored station when it was time to eat. This ensured that the terrapins weren't stealing each other's food, making it easier for our staff to feed them—and it also was much easier than trying to train the turtles not to push each other while feeding.

Diamondback Terrapin Pokes Its Head Through the Water's Surface

Oftentimes, the behavioral husbandry team will take the approach of teaching an animal a behavior that is incompatible with an undesirable behavior.

"Think about a dog that jumps on guests when they walk through the door," Liz explained. "It's difficult to train a dog to not jump up, but it's easier to train them to sit on a mat when someone enters the home. They can't jump and sit at the same time."

In the context of the Aquarium, this can look like training a bird to whistle instead of screech when they want attention. For animals that might try to bite staff during exams, Liz's team may train them to hold onto something with their mouths or have their head turned away when being handled.

Learning Our ABCs

As Louis the rescued grey seal pup demonstrated last year, our behavioral husbandry's expertise sometimes lends itself to animals who will eventually live outside the walls of the Aquarium.

Louis—who was rescued after stranding on Assateague Island in February 2022—began to exhibit undesirable behavior about six weeks after he arrived at our Animal Care and Rescue Center. He was persistently scratching on the door of his enclosure, and our Animal Rescue and Animal Health teams, worried that Louis would injure himself with his scratching, called in the behavioral husbandry team to help.

Rehabilitation Biologist Margot Madden Watches Rescued Grey Seal Louis Armstrong From Outside His Enclosure

When developing a behavior plan for an animal in our care, the team implements a strategy known as the ABC approach. In this strategy, our experts identify and analyze three aspects—antecedent, behavior and consequence—to help develop a plan.

The first step in this approach is to identify and explain the behavior that needs to be addressed, known as the target behavior; in this case, Louis' scratching. Next up is analyzing the antecedents, when the team determines the conditions that take place before the target behavior. Finally, the team examines the consequences—in other words, the result of the target behavior. There's always something the animal is hoping to gain from the target behavior, according to Liz.

"All behavior has meaning," Liz explained. "Animals don't do something unless they're satisfying some need."

In the case of Louis, the team implemented the ABC approach and observed that when Louis was scratching at the door, Aquarium staff would go into his enclosure to check on him or to feed him. They determined that he was getting reinforced with attention or food often enough that he made the connection between scratching and receiving those "rewards."

"Since rescued animals eventually return to the ocean, it's important to quickly address any behavior that may be inadvertently creating positive associations with—and reliance on—humans," National Aquarium Senior Rehabilitation Biologist Margot Madden explained. "At the Aquarium, we're grateful to have an in-house team of animal behavior experts ready to help when cases like Louis' arise."

After this analysis, Liz's team worked with the Animal Rescue team to develop a behavioral plan that would change the consequence of Louis' behavior so that he didn't get what he wanted—food and attention—from this unwanted scratching behavior. They decided that staff members who worked with Louis would not enter his enclosure and feed him when he was scratching; instead, they would go in and give him food when he was calm and not scratching. The plan paid off; only three days after implementation, Louis' scratching behavior began to improve.

Giving a Skink Some Space

When ambassador animal Oscar the prehensile-tailed skink arrived at the Aquarium, Liz's team quickly noticed that he didn't like to be touched.

"He clearly had some aversive experiences being handled," Liz explained. "So we decided to flip the script."

Instead of forcing Oscar to engage in a behavior he was clearly uncomfortable with, the team gave him the option to exit his enclosure onto a log prop on his own terms. When he made the choice to come on to the log, he was rewarded with food and had the opportunity to explore his new space. According to Liz, the more time Oscar spent at the Aquarium, the more inquisitive he became.

Oscar the Prehensile-Tailed Skink Climbs on a Log From His Enclosure

"When we first got Oscar, he would show signs he didn't want to interact with us when he saw us, like backing away or closing his eyes when we opened his enclosure," Liz said. "Now, when we open his enclosure, he will oftentimes move toward us and reach out to show us that he's ready to go out and explore on his log."

From birds and reptiles to fish and marine mammals—and many types of animals in between—countless Aquarium residents have benefited from the behavioral husbandry team's expertise. This team's knowledge, skills and passion not only benefit the animals they help train, but also the staff who work with these animals, allowing us to continue to fulfill our unwavering commitment to provide the highest level of welfare to every animal in our care.

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