Monday, May 20, 2013

The Middle Flipper is....(Part 6)

...a dolphin who wants nothing on the menu.

I just want a football.

One of the greatest misconceptions about animal training is that the only motivator worth its salt is food.  Lots of food.  Some extremely misguided people assume this means that starvation and food deprivation are involved, because then how else would an animal do what's asked of him or her?  

Before I delve too deeply into my story, I would like to point out that there are animals who are into the I-jump-you-feed mentality.  They are the businessmen and women of the animal training realm.  Transactions must occur predictably and reliably for them to extend the same reliability towards you.

However, the vast majority of animals with whom I've worked are not simply garbage disposals with bottomless stomachs.  In fact, even the business-minded animals can get bored with the same old reward.  

This point's been made abundantly clear to me through several charming experiences I've had.  But not as poignant as the lesson taught to me by a little female dolphin we'll just call "Princess".


While she wasn't the first calf I'd worked with, this little lady's birth was the first I'd ever seen in person.  And my boss assigned me and a select few others to begin to train her when she started showing interest in us.  It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Princess' primary interest in humans was her ability to teach them to give her ice.  Let me specify: ice chips.  Not legit cubes, not crushed ice, not the cylindrical ones with the holes in the middle....the flat, once inch chips.  She went nuts for this stuff.  

The stuff of 's dreams

Princess learned tens of behaviors on zero fish.  All of her body presents, bubbles, vocals, mimics, toy retrieval, sink, her bow, and interaction behaviors were fueled by her endless desire for ice, toys, and lots of rubs.  At the point at which her two half-brothers (born a couple of weeks apart from her) were chowing down on fish, Princess not-so-politely refused any food offered from a human being.

The first few times you give a fish to a dolphin calf, you assume they are going to play with it.  That's what they do whether a human or a dolphin introduces them to fish.  Eventually, one of three things happens:

1) Like any toddler, the dolphin tot decides swallowing something is the next best thing to playing with it

2) The calf sees mom eating fish, and mom is pretty cool, so they decide to copy her

3) The kid likes the taste of fish....the end

At least, that's what we read in books.  The weaning process for bottlenose dolphins (both common and Indo-pacific) is not clearcut; the time at which it takes for a calf to be fully weaned is variable and depends on a lot of different factors affecting the calf and the mother.   Nonetheless, typically dolphin calves are eating fish routinely while nursing a little on average from 6 to 12 months of age (sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less).  They are usually fully weaned by 18 to 20 months.

Now, there is a fourth scenario I purposely left out.  I wasn't even aware that this scenario existed until this special dolphin came into my life.  

4) The dolphin goes all vegetarian on you

When we started introducing fish to Princess, she did not spit it out, or play with it.  She threw a temper tantrum.   She made crazy angry-dolphin noises and spit the fish out.  She did some splashing and some speed-swimming, sometimes breaching or lob tailing.   

We tried reasoning with her.

Me: This is what dolphins eat.  Fish.  You can't drink milk and eat ice forever.

Princess: YES I CAN.
Me: Here, trust me, why don't you try it? Just a little taste? 

"This is what I think of your FISH"

We tried reinforcing her for simply being calm in the presence of fish.

Me: Look, don't freak out.  But I have a fish here.  You don't have to do anything with it.  Just look at it.  And chillax.

Princess: Lady, I better be getting a brand new football or some ice chips of the specifications I like for this crap.

Princess eventually became calm when she saw us offer fish, but she still would not swallow it.   We resorted to different measures.  We had her mother sit next to her and eat fish, hoping Princess would mimic her.  We only let her play with her football if she mouthed her fish.  When this didn't work, we started making tiny fish sandwiches with some filleted fish chunks in between ice chips.  We had some initial success, but she quickly started spitting out the fish and swallowing the ice.   

Like any desperate parent, we looked for another solution to get this kid to eat her fish.  Not because she was in any imminent danger, but because she was approaching a year old.  She should at least be starting to show interest in fish, not a strong aversion to it.  

So we started putting frozen fish into the ice cubes themselves, figuring she swallows ice so well that she'd potentially start swallowing the fish cubes the same way.  This wasn't as easy as simply dropping fish into water and freezing it.  We had to create the ice cubes in an ice cube tray, placing frozen fish chunks in very cold water and directly into the freezer so the fish remained frozen the entire time and did not thaw and refreeze.   Needless to say, this process took a long time.  We were excited to offer Princess this exciting new version of the Ice Cube.

Me: Look!!! Look what we have! Ice!  With a surprise inside!


Me: Here, just try it.


Princess would not just eat any ice.  She'd only eat the ice our fish house ice machine made.  And after the Surprise Ice attempts, she regressed back into Toddler Temper Tantrum mode anytime a fish in any form was offered to her.

This entire time, I lamented the fact that as dolphin trainers, we really had no recourse compared to the arsenal of tricks human mothers use to get their kids to eat their vegetables, or anything else the kid refuses to eat (but needs).  

Here is how my parents would've solved the problem if Princess were a human child:

Parents: Princess, eat your capelin.

Princess: No.

Parents: Princess, eat your capelin or you won't grow big and strong.

Princess:  Rolls eyes

Parents: Okay, if you don't eat your capelin, you'll go to your room.

Princess: Yeah well, I LIKE my room.  

Parents: Puts Cheez-Whiz on everything

Princess:  Alright!!!!!!!

Hey, it got my sister eating broccoli!

Since there is no Cheez-Whiz for dolphins, here's how we solved the problem:


Eventually, Princess started eating fish with wild abandon after about a year and a half of her milk-and-ice diet.  Upon further research, I found that a wild Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin nursed from his mom for 11 years*, like some kind of Buster Bluth of dolphins.   That is the rare exception. Most dolphins (in human care or in the wild) at least start eating some fish by the time they're a year old.

This picture is too perfect for words

The verve with which Princess refused fish and all other forms of ice sort of draws a parallel with how we as humans learn to eat food.  Some of our aversion/interest may be hard-wired (I will always hate mushrooms), and others may be cultural:  It doesn't matter how nutritious they are, I'm not going to serve myself a bowl of grubs for a delicious snack.  Maybe if I were raised in a culture that ate grubs, I'd have the same aversion to a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch**.

So what was going on on Princess' noggin?  I have no idea.  A baby dolphin with a belly full of milk and an interest in people, plus no survival pressures meant that Princess had the luxury of a not-so-swift weaning process.  And she became a very interactive, fun animal who looked to us not out of necessity.   Like so many animals, she is motivated by lots of things that have little to do with her hunger drive.   She just fell on the opposite end of the spectrum; we had to teach her to eat her fish.   Nonetheless, we were careful to maintain her interest in her toys, ice chips, and tactile reinforcement.  Your animal training program might be good if you use just food as the reward, but it will be great if you incorporate and can rely on other forms of reinforcement.  It just took a stubborn dolphin calf to teach me that lesson! 

One of the best dolphins ever


* He also lived in his mother's basement into his 40s

** Someone end my life if this ever happens

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