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Bilingual Walruses: French 101

Plenty of evidence suggests animals are incredibly intelligent: elephants have exceptional memories and demonstrate self-awareness, octopuses use their arms to solve puzzles, and insects, such as bees and ants, work together in colonies.

But… have you ever heard of a bilingual walrus? What about two of them? Walruses Balzak (pronounced bell’-zik) and Lakina (pronounced la-kee’-na) at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium prove daily how smart they are.

Born in 2016 at Aquarium du Quebec in the French-speaking province, the walruses first learned their training cues in French. In 2018, the young walruses moved to Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, where they picked up some English cues in the two years they spent there before traveling back to Quebec.

Now, at Point Defiance Zoo in Washington State, their keepers use French and English to communicate with the pair.

Sheriden, the zoo’s assistant curator of marine mammals, spent a week in Quebec getting to know the young walruses and learning about their personalities, favorite foods, and daily routines before they moved to Tacoma one year ago. She also received a crash course in “Walrus French 101.” Fortunately for Sheriden, she took three years of French in high school and another three years in college. She’s kept up with her French over the past few years by using language apps, watching movies in French, and listening to French podcasts.

“It’s been a highlight working with these walruses and also getting to use some French again,” said Sheriden.

As for the other keepers who have yet to gain a background in French, it’s been a learning curve, just like it’s been a learning curve for the walruses to learn new behaviors with English cues.

“Lakina is more inquisitive and curious while Balzak is more reserved and patient, but they are both quick learners,” said Sheriden.

Whether in English or French, all these cues help create a trusting relationship between the walruses and their keepers. The cues can also come in handy if the walruses need a medical exam or procedure.

French training cues

Nageoire: “Flipper/fin.” Keepers use this word to ask the walruses to show their front flippers. The keepers look at each body part during training sessions to ensure the health of the walruses.

Comme il faut: “Properly.” Keepers use this phrase to ask the walruses to “properly” put their flippers straight out behind them rather than under them for keepers to examine them closely.

Reste: “Stay.” The walruses understand both the French and English words for stay.

Cache: “To hide something.” Keepers use this word to ask the walruses to cover their faces with their flippers. Some cues like this are not used for medical reasons but are fun behaviors to stimulate the walruses mentally.

Va l’isle: “Go to the island.” Keepers use this phrase to ask the walruses to move to the island in the habitat. It can be helpful if keepers need to clean or grab an enrichment toy or item from another area of their habitat without the walruses nearby.

C’est fini: “Done” or “finished.” Keepers use this cue to signal the end of a training session. The walruses understand both the French and English words for “done.”

English training cues

Vocals: This cue asks the walruses to sputter, hum, roar, sing, and click. These are all sounds that walruses make naturally in the wild.

Out: This word signals the walruses to move out of the water, which can be helpful if the keepers need to examine the walruses on land for any health-related reasons.

Water: Keepers use this word to ask the walruses to move back into the water.

Back: Keepers use this word to ask the walruses to back up. When working with such large animals, the keepers want to ensure they have cues like this to set boundaries with the walruses.

Open: By opening their mouths, keepers can inspect the walruses’ teeth and tusks and measure their tusks as they grow.

Tongue: By presenting their tongue, keepers can examine it for health. Their tongues must be in good condition- walruses use their strong tongues to suck meat out of a clam’s shell.

Flipper: Keepers use this word to ask the walruses to present their back flippers. If keepers need to draw blood on the walruses for medical reasons, they can ask them to show them their flippers.

Meet these intelligent walruses any day the zoo is open in the Rocky Shores area of the zoo.