This is a cute viral animal video on Twitter. It’s been converted to a .gif on the imgur.com website. It’s done the rounds on the Internet and so a lot of people have seen it. You might have seen it. The sea otter has been trained by its handler to have their temperature taken in the mouth. The woman is using one of those remote, wireless body temperature measurement devices which we have seen being used to check people for elevated temperatures to indicate a Covid infection. She appears to be scanning the back of the sea after’s mouth where a true body temperature is indicated.
She raises her hand as a signal to the sea otter to open his mouth. The animal is well trained. The cute aspect of the video is the expression on the sea otter’s face after the temperature has been taken. It is a potential source of controversy.
To achieve this, the handler used positive reinforcement training. They would also have received a reward, probably a small fish and I expect that it learned to open its mouth quite quickly. The instigator of the behaviour is the raised hand. But we don’t see a reward at the end of the process. This is what is courting controversy. Some people have said that it is an example of animal abuse. This is an extreme observation I would argue.
Once you have trained an animal with positive reinforcement i.e. using treat, you don’t need to give them a treat anymore. They respond to the instigating signal. But it is in the expectation of receiving a treat. But this is not a conscious expectation but an instinctive reaction. Do animals feel upset when they don’t get a retreat? I don’t think they do but I would expect the learning process to be gradually unlearned unless you reinforced it with treats at some stage.
This video seems to be saying the same thing:
The woman also touches the otter’s nose and gently pushes the head back as part of the command/process to get the otter to open their mouth. It is a well-rehearsed interaction with must have happened many times before.
Postscript: the size of the otter is surprising. I always thought otters were quite small but apparently not. But I believe that this is a sea otter, so they are probably much larger than the river otters that we see in video. A quick Internet search confirms that this is true. The Seattle aquarium tells us that sea otters are 2 to 3 times the size of river otters. Another difference is that sea otters float on their backs while river otters swim belly down like most animals. And the tail of a sea otter is short and flattened while that of the river otter is long and pointed.