October 22, 2020
- as seen by -Julie Larsen Maher and Jennifer Rant
Bruiser is an 11-year-old California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) living at WCS’s New York Aquarium. His moniker might suggest otherwise, but Bruiser is actually a very lovable marine mammal and a star of the aquarium’s Aquatheater show. Bruiser’s behaviors – from flips and dives to painting pictures and recycling plastic – delight our guests and his photographer. Bruiser and his human partner, WCS Senior Trainer Jennifer Rant, are partners of mine. Their special bond offers me some outstanding picture opportunities. I chatted with Jenn about what makes Bruiser so special.
JLM: Bruiser was born at the Bronx Zoo, then joined the pool at Central Park Zoo for about a year before his residency at the New York Aquarium. Do you know any stories about Bruiser in his younger years?
JHR: I didn’t personally have the pleasure of working with Bruiser during his pup years, but I’ve heard that he was a very enthusiastic sea lion. Regarding his short time at Central Park, rumor has it that Bruiser made a bit too much noise for the residents of the Upper East Side. He joined us at the New York Aquarium. Hey, it’s Coney Island where he can be a little rowdy.
JLM: You have worked with Bruiser for almost 5 years. What is your key to a successful partnership with him?
JHR: I have worked with Bruiser since January of 2016. Building a relationship with Bruiser has been so great. He has the best eye contact out of any sea lion that I have ever worked with. The key to our successful partnership is based on trust, keeping things positive, fun, and mentally stimulating, and of course, lots of fish.
JLM: The behaviors Bruiser has learned from the aquarium’s training staff, including you, seem endless. What behaviors does he know? Which is favorite?
JHR: Bruiser knows over 100 different behaviors. He knows high energy things like bows and jumps that show off his natural ability and keep him physically fit (above). In my opinion, his most impressive behaviors are his husbandry behaviors. “Husbandry” means that we train the animals to voluntarily take part in their own health care. For example, Bruiser is trained to lay down and hold a position while the veterinarian staff draws a blood sample from his rear flipper. As far as his favorite behavior, it seems that it is any behavior that elicits a big reaction from our audience like his dab or backflip. We feel like Bruiser appreciates the spotlight.
JLM: How long does it take for Bruiser to learn a new behavior?
JHR: The time it takes to learn something new completely varies, depending on the behavior. I would say that Bruiser is an eager pupil and really goes all in when he is learning a new behavior. Sometimes his eagerness is counterproductive because he tries to guess what we are asking for, and he will start offering suggestions. Bruiser can learn some behaviors in just one session where something like a back flip could take up to a year.
JLM: Can you share a favorite Bruiser experience?
JHR: Oh wow. There are so many memories, I really can’t pick a favorite. Something that sticks out on a daily basis is that Bruiser brings so much joy to my life, and honestly, anyone who is in his presence, whether it is keepers, guests, or the photographer. For me, no matter how busy my day is, or how crazy the world is around us, I take one look at Bruiser, and I am temporarily at peace. There is something about the way that he looks at people with those huge brown eyes, that double chin, and those dimples. I realize that I am so grateful that Bruiser is a part of my life.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks to all the staff that care for the animals and keep WCS’s parks running. We are grateful for the work they do.