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According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, October is National Dental Hygiene Month. Even though the association’s focus is on promoting good oral hygiene in humans, animals need to have healthy teeth, too. That is why three times a week the Animal Care staff at Brookfield Zoo makes brushing the teeth of the seals and sea lions a part of the animals’ preventive health care.

Through the Behavioral Husbandry Program of the Chicago Zoological Society’s Center for the Science of Animal Welfare, zookeepers use positive reinforcement and operant conditioning techniques that allow many of the zoo’s animals to be involved and active in their own care. In the instance of the seals and sea lions, the Animal Care staff has trained the pinnipeds to open their mouths, allowing the staff to check inside and brush the animals’ teeth, gums, and tongues with an oral cleaning paste made specifically for animals.

In addition to training the seals and sea lions, the zoowide Behavioral Husbandry Program has allowed staff to train many of the other animals at Brookfield Zoo, including grizzly and polar bears, dolphins, gorillas, tigers, rhinos, and camels. Some of the cooperative behaviors the animals have been trained to participate in include getting on a scale to be weighed, taking medicine, presenting a limb to have blood drawn, and receiving acupuncture.


You may notice that the sea lions’ teeth are black. This is normal for this species even in the wild. Their teeth are white but turn black because of a bacteria. This normal and healthy bacteria actually turns the inside of their mouths and saliva dark too.