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HIGH-ACCURACY SCALES HELP SEAWORLD EAGLES WATCH THEIR WEIGHT, STAY HEALTHY

When bald eagles gain a couple of ounces, chances are they won't be afraid to be seen in a bathing suit. They probably will pay little attention to the catty whispers of the other eagles, and they certainly won't start counting calories.

Yet, while eagles remain unconcerned about their weight, the professionals in the Animal Training Department at SeaWorld Orlando are very concerned. They not only understand that a bird's weight fluctuates quite often, but that the weight of the bird directly affects its level of activity. In fact, if a bird is overfed, it can become lethargic and unresponsive - much the same as humans after a big meal. Subsequently, the birds will be less likely to interact with visitors, which can present a major problem at an attraction like SeaWorld whose reputation rests heavily on the hands-on, "up-close" nature of its exhibits.

The eagles are an extremely popular attraction at the park. One of their primary roles is to participate in the New Shamu Adventure Show. One eagle appears at the beginning of the show, and flies from lure to perch as a sort of audience "warm-up." In addition, the eagles accompany the trainers through the park, interacting with tourists and helping educate the public about animal conservation. With the third largest eagle population in the country, Florida is certainly an appropriate venue for this type of educational experience.

Due to the important roles the eagles play at the park, monitoring the weight of the entire eagle population - which includes the Bald and African Fish varieties - is not taken lightly at SeaWorld Orlando, the world's most popular marine life adventure park with more than 200 acres of shows, attractions and exhibits. In fact, when it comes to the care and treatment of animals, SeaWorld, which has played host to more than 75 million visitors, takes a back seat to no one: besides the superior attention given to its marine and animal residents, the park boasts one of the world's largest animal rescue programs, caring for hundreds of endangered animals each year, from inch-long turtles to 2,000-pound manatees.

"The eagles have a special place in the hearts of the employees," says Pat Caracciolo, the park's senior animal trainer.

"We treat our eagles - and all our birds, for that matter - like top athletes," Caracciolo said. "The food we give them is restaurant quality. It is air-thawed overnight, then weighed to insure that we are giving them a precise portion."

"The treatment we give them is not due solely to their importance to the park," Caracciolo added. "Actually, we're pretty fond of them. They're like family."

When the birds are weighed each day as part of their health maintenance program, the need for accuracy is paramount. Thus, SeaWorld turned to Accurate Scale & Equipment Company, Inc. based in Altamonte Springs, Florida, for assistance. They recommended scales from Setra Systems Inc., a leading manufacturer of high-precision industrial scales and laboratory balances, based in Boxborough, Massachusetts.

The 70 CP scales employ variable capacitance ceramic load cell technology - developed and patented by Setra - which accounts for their high accuracy. The 70 CP scale offers a readability of 0.001 pounds, a crucial consideration when weighing birds whose weight normally falls in the five to seven pound range.

The scales have been modified to accommodate the eagle and its sharp talons. A stainless steel "T" perch was welded onto the scale platform. The top of the "T" is wrapped in rope for the eagle's comfort. The weighing is one element of the bird's entire examination, during which a hood is placed over the bird's head, as eagles remain still in darkness. The vet will also take a blood sample, fecal culture, and throat culture.

In terms of convenience and effectiveness, the Setra scale is light years ahead of the previous system, which employed a triple beam balance scale. Besides the problem of inaccuracy, the platform itself was too small to accommodate the bird, as well as exhibiting a high degree of instability. What's more, with the beam balance, the eagle could actually grab hold of the scale and fly away with it. While it may have provided a few humorous moments for the staff, it didn't translate to a particularly effective weighing process.

The beam balance was replaced with Setra scales several years ago. At the time, the Sea Lion department was using them and had been greatly impressed with the scales' high level of accuracy and their user-friendliness.

The Setra scales, which have proved to be easy to use while providing more accurate and consistent weight readings, have improved the overall efficiency of the training department, according to Caracciolo. More importantly, they seem to have been favorably received by the eagles themselves.

"Our birds seem more comfortable with these scales and, subsequently, the entire weighing process," he said. "They are much more relaxed during and after the examination, which means they are much friendlier with our visitors."

"And, when the eagles perform well, our guests are happy. That's what really matters."

   
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