As a 4-year-old raised near the beaches of Southern California, Traci Belting liked to romp around tide pools, which led to “the talk” from her mother.
“Traci always loved animals, starting with her cat, and she was always playing with things in the tide pools,” mom Sandra Worden said. “She wanted to bring starfish home, and I had to explain why we didn’t do that.”
Today, at age 52, Belting is curator of the Seattle Aquarium, lives in Olalla and maintains ties with the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, where she worked for a decade. She considers educating others on sea life the best chance of saving it.
From the tide pools of her childhood to a high school job selling sodas at Marineland, Belting was never far from the creatures she treasures.
In a career that began “less than an hour after my last final at UCLA,” she has worked with dolphins, beluga whales, walruses, sea otters, polar bears, arctic foxes, penguins, puffins and raptors.
She’s learned as much about the industry as about the wildlife she works with.
“The challenge is to create that connection to wildlife, but to be accurate about it. We’ve romanticized life in the wild,” she said. “When people come up to a sea lion exhibit, they’ll usually clap their hands together like flippers in greeting. Sea lions don’t clap in the wild; our industry trained them to do that.”
Among the biggest misconceptions about the creatures in zoos and aquariums? That they all yearn to be free.
“Once a wild animal is acclimated, it’s hard to get them to leave. They don’t have to fight for food, watch for predators, find shelter,” Belting said. “The Navy worked with dolphins in open-water situations, and after awhile they had trouble getting them to return to the wild. Even once they were back in the wild, if something traumatic happened, they’d head back to the barn.
“It’s the same with raptors. If you have an open-air flight show, people ask ‘Why doesn’t he fly away?’ Simple. He doesn’t want to.”
For 10 years, Belting was the marine mammal manager at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium after jobs at the now-closed Marineland and the Minneapolis Zoo. Upon arrival in Tacoma, she had to re-educate herself on some species.
Consider belugas and dolphins, which lived together for years at the zoo’s Rocky Shores exhibit.
“Belugas had the reputation of being unable to do the same things dolphins did. They were slower, fatter and, some people thought, ‘dumber.’ A beluga is as sharp as any marine mammal,” she said.
“I loved dolphins, did a second grade report on them, but I’d like to put the wild back in wildlife. Dolphins can and do kill in the wild. They’re not our friends from the sea; they’re wild animals.”
Similarly, polar bears were believed to be untrainable. The Point Defiance staff proved otherwise.
“Polar bears are the world’s largest land carnivore. To get them to leave an enclosure, you’d throw meat and wait for them to go get it. If they weren’t in the mood, you waited,” Belting said. “The staff at Point Defiance began training the bears in the late ’90s, and used the same behavioral training used on other sea mammals: positive reinforcement.
“We rewarded them for doing what we needed them to do — they got rewarded once they left the enclosure. It worked. They responded.
“We presented a paper on it at a symposium, and it’s the way polar bears are trained now.”
Her ties to Point Defiance remain strong. Fourteen months ago, the Seattle Aquarium and the zoo in Tacoma had a harbor seal swap. Last week, Point Defiance welcomed one new pup and is awaiting a second.
In Seattle, meanwhile, the aquarium last week opened a new harbor seal exhibit, where Belting will get the opportunity to tell visitors about them.
“The orca gets great press, but the harbor seal is probably the face of the Sound,” Belting said. “It’s more local. You look out on the Sound, how often do you see orcas? I guarantee you, if we went down to the shore and walked, you’d see a harbor seal poke his head up.
“They’re great ambassadors.”
So is Belting, said her mother, who always worried about her daughter working with big animals — bears, walruses and whales. At the Seattle Aquarium, there are no large mammals.
“She is so caring of everyone and every thing,” Worden said. “I never liked animals much — I don’t have a pet — but I moved to Gig Harbor to be near Traci. I told her when she took the job in Seattle, ‘At last, you’re working somewhere where nothing can kill you!’”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/larue