The small-clawed Asian river otters at the Denver Zoo are an inquisitive bunch, the entire family of six often rushing at the slightest gleam.
It’s cute, of course, to see all these slinky critters piling over each other — but it’s also really annoying to deal with six writhing, riverine mammals when you need to give one of them a shot.
That’s why the zookeepers had to get a little creative: How do you talk to just one otter?
The solution they found: shapes. Watch our live video below, or keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read.
So, for example: Jilin Kalong, a hefty boy at 10 pounds, has been trained to think of fish every time he sees an orange hexagon. Put a laminated hexagon on the glass and he’ll smush his face against it, ready for some frozen smelt or herring.
Put a blue circle against the glass, though, and Jilin will ignore it, while one of his sisters might rush toward it. (That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.)
“Because they’re very social and have a close family dynamic, it can be hard to separate just one from the rest of the family,” as the zoo staff explained in one video of the training.
In other words: Want a different otter? Use a different shape.
“If we can train each otter to come to a specific shape, then we can ask them to go to certain places … and we can separate them into different groups,” as predators animal keeper Kelsey Barker explained.
They might use the shapes to tempt Jilin onto the otters’ giant hamster wheel for some exercise or maybe to draw out one of his sisters for some one-on-one training. Ultimately, it may prove a quick, visual way to communicate with one little critter among a distractible pack.
Zoos have been experimenting with this form of communication with whales, dolphins and primates.
In fact, rats, dogs and even goldfish may have some shape recognition abilities, according to Denver psychologist Shawn Smith, who happened to write an extremely relevant post about all this.
He points to a 1966 study that found canines outperformed goldfish and octopodes, but none of them “sucked,” as he put it. Moreover, he reports that he trained his dog to choose a star over a circle.
With Denver’s otters — well, it’s a work in progress. Jilin’s a quick learner, in part because he is so hungry all the time, but sometimes he’ll spring for any old shape. He’s especially confused by circles because they’re so similar to hexagons, and he sometimes gets tripped up by colors close to his learned shade of orange.
Still, even those mistakes reminded me that animals’ nervous systems aren’t too different from our own. They have a lot of capabilities that are simply waiting for the right way to communicate — and some treats.