SeaLife Center Blind Seal Warms Trainers’ Hearts

Bryce, the eight-month-old harbor seal, is a special resident at the Alaska SeaLife Center. After being rescued in August, the workers at the rescue center discovered he had a very unique quality. He was blind. Since then, they have trained him using auditory commands while they look for a permanent home for the young seal.

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A disabled harbor seal pup at Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward has learned a new trick. Bryce, the blind baby seal, responds to sound and voice commands, and trainers are trying to find him a permanent home.   The  Sea Life Center  normally cares for stranded marine mammals — 16 seal pups alone last year —- eventually releasing them back into the wild.  But something about the two month old harbor seal found on a Homer beach was different.

Halley Werner is the Center’s stranding supervisor:

“We didn’t know he was blind right away.  He was showing all normal behavior, normal signs, the exams went great. But after a few days we noticed that he wasn’t looking at us right, or at all, and we started seeing signs of a lack of vision.”

 Werner says veterinarians determined the two month old harbor seal was blind, probably due to head trauma.  Undaunted, Werner is training the seal to heed sound cues.  She demonstrates putting Bryce through his paces, and the little seal responds with enthusiasm.   Werner shakes a rattle, and calls “Bryce”.  The sea pup pops up from his small pool immediately.

 “So he knows when a session is ready to start. He actually knows I always want him to be in the water when I start. So you may have noticed he was just hanging out. I gave him some fish to reinforce him and I asked him, ‘let’s go’ so that’s asking me to follow me where I am, and shook his little shaker and he caught onto that and came right up.”

Bryce’s pool is located in an alcove of a room indoors at the Center.  The pool is  small, about eight feet long,  edged by a level cement border that allows the seal to spend a bit of time out of the water, if he wants.  Werner kneels close to the pool, offers Bryce a treat.  He pops out again, then  ” Water” ,Werner says, and he flops back into the pool   She says the words, ‘target’, ‘water’ and ‘let’s go’ are standard words used in training seals.

“He definitely knows  that when he’s doing what he’s asked, he’ll get his food. He likes to please.” she says.

 Bryce, who’s named after Utah’s Bryce Canyon  lives alone in his pool. He’s been there six months. Bryce has only limited experience with other seals, Werner says.   She says, the seal’s recognition of words and sounds may help the Center place him in a permanent home, despite his blindness.

Well I think that’s kind of what makes him charming.”, Werner says, when asked if the seal’s disability may make it hard for the Center to find him a permanent placement.

 And he is charming. Bryce dips and dives in his small enclosure, occasionally hauling out to inspect a couple of playthings … a blue ball and a pile of ice cubes left for him to play with.

“So we’re working towards placing him in a different facility where he can live peacefully and happily amongst other seals and other people.”

 For now, Bryce has got a home, although he’s kept away from public viewing. She says it’s the goal of the Center to place every animal that cannot be released back into the wild.