Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Middle Flipper Is … (Part 8)

… a dolphin who lets herself into whatever habitat she pleases.

Talk to any animal caregiver.  One of the first behaviors an animal learns is how to move from one part of their habitat to another.  The same goes for humans in many cultures, I suppose.  You learn that certain rooms or areas of your abode are for specific things.  For example, my parents taught me that if I wanted food, I had to shift into the kitchen.  When it was time to go to bed, I gated into my bedroom.  If I had to go to the bathroom, well, there was a specific section of the habitat for that business.*

As we get older, we learn how to coexist with conspecifics such as roommates or dorm-mates.  There are Rules when you Live With Others, especially at the adult level.  For example, your roommate's room is usually off-limit to you during certain adult activities**.  


You aren't allowed to go in there.  It's not usually a mean-spirited Rule.  We'd say it's just polite to give our roommate space and time to themselves.

The same goes for those of us who lived in a dorm setting.  The dorm building is one big habitat with many different habitats inside.  You may congregate with other humans, maybe you'll even hang out in one of their rooms, but it is all under stimulus control.  You knock before entering another dorm room.  You do not attempt to barge in to another person's private space.  You have free access to common areas such as the bathroom.  However, this is college, so you may experience poop on the floor.  The parallels to zoos are endless!

Johnny, maybe you shoulda knocked.

So when us zookeepers talk about shifting or gating animals from one habitat to another, some people have a very difficult time understanding why we don't just let all the animals hang out in all the habitats everywhere all the time.  I'm not sure what they think the animals would do when they all get mixed together in a situation that is unnatural to their social behavior.   Massive games of mahjongg? Peaceful political protest about the latest hot button issue?  

Dolphins would probably be awful Mahjongg players, what with no fingers or whatever.

Some animal species are not necessarily found in giant social groups, while others are.  For example, our penguins are in one big habitat.  It's natural for them to be found in large flocks.  Our Asian small-clawed otters are all sisters, so they live together.  But if we ever got more ASCOs, you can bet all of your money, future offspring (and let's throw some donuts in there because this is getting serious) that we would not just mix together the new otters with our current ones.  We would separate them into different habitats.  Why? Because the natural social behavior of these particular type of otters does not allow for outsiders to be thrown into established territory without some really unfortunate consequences.  Some animals work better in a setting that is more familiar to a culture most humans are used to: limited social interactions with different conspecifics, and physical spaces for individual or smaller groups.

Other reasons for limiting or granting access to different parts of a habitat involve husbandry and medical needs.  Some of the dolphins with whom I've worked don't ever bother me when I put my maid hat on and clean their habitat on scuba gear.   Other dolphins see it as their personal mission to see how high they can get my heart rate as they grab the hydraulic scrubber line and pull it (and by association, me) around the habitat, leaving a squiggly - albeit algae-free - line in its path.   Those dolphins are usually gated out of the habitat that needs cleaning so we can accomplish the task in less time with less squiggles.  

Sometimes, we have to make a repair to a habitat and that requires tools and little objects that dolphins love to take from us.  One of the dolphins I know will use these things as bargaining tools, because she'll bring them up to us for some kind of exchange (usually fish in her case).  So she's got her eyes peeled for any bartering fodder.  That isn't a good problem to have when you're trying to make repairs to a habitat, so you must close off a habitat.

Hey, I need something to sell on Ebay.

Of course, medical needs mean we need to shift animals into a med pool or holding area designed for medical procedures.   Animals are way better off if you teach them to go in their voluntarily, because it significantly reduces anxiety which is the name of the game in training, especially if your animal is under the weather and doesn't need to be stressed out more by being scared of a medical habitat.   Does that sound strange?  Well, of course it does.  No one teaches us humans to look forward to going to the doctor!  We are punished with needles, paper gowns, and horrendous medical bills.  There is nothing to look forward to when we go to the doctor's office.  

"But Cat," you say.  "What if your doctor is hot and single?"

"Well," I reply.  "This hot and single doctor is about to look at your warts."

I'm here to closely examine your most horrific medical problem on the most embarrassing place you can fathom.

Not. Reinforcing.

Side note: when I run for President of the Universe, I'm mandating that all human beings are paid $500 per doctor's visit in cash or gift cards until such time we find doctor's offices reinforcing (and then we can go on a variable schedule of variable reinforcement).

Now that I've addressed the reasons behind shifting and gating animals from one habitat to the other, let's talk about what happens when the animals decide to break the rules.

Everyone wonders why dolphins don't just jump over their low separating barriers and let themselves in to habitats to which they have no access.  I don't know the answer, because I haven't actually conversed with a dolphin.  But the best explanation I've heard is that while dolphins are more than physically capable of jumping from one habitat to the other, they are not inclined to do so because it is not something they typically DO as dolphins.  Hurdling forward and over long distances is not something dolphins naturally have in their frame of reference.

This leaping over little boys on jetties thing does not happen in real life.

Look at their eyes; they're on either side of the dolphin's head, meaning most of their lines of sight do not have the best spatial reasoning in terms of judging distance.  Maybe they look at a floating dock and see it as vast as the Saharan Desert.   

But every so often, one dolphin figures it out.

Star, one of the dolphins I used to work with, was just such a dolphin.

Now, I don't know how it happens at other facilities.  I've heard that some dolphins just hop over a gate, catwalk, or dock like they suddenly realized it's possible.  Other times, it's totally by accident. And in Star's case, that's exactly what happened.

All the dolphins had been seeped out of a particular habitat so my coworker could get in and power scrub the habitat at the end of the day.  I was the dive spotter, so I was able to see the entire habitat as well as my pal's bubbles. 

The dolphins began to engage in adult activities in the adjacent habitat.  Nothing about it alarmed me, because dolphins spend a lot of their past time uh, in said activities.   I couldn't take my eyes off of the diver, but I could tell from the corner of my eye that the dolphins had started rolling over each other, vocalizing, and creating a lot of white water.  

Then it escalated.  They started speed swimming around the habitat.  My first thought was something had happened underwater with the diver, like the tank hitting something that caused the dolphins to freak out.  But none of them craned their head to look at the diver as they usually do with an offending sound or sight.  They were pursuing Star, who deftly played hard to get.  She out-maneuvered them, then slowed down as if to tease them, then picked up speed again as they got closer.  

She swam and swam and swam and finally, the other dolphins caught up with her.  She was right next to one of the catwalks which separated each habitat.  The catwalks were just at the water's surface, but none of the dolphins had shown any interest in sliding or jumping over.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.  Because as Star attempted to evade her pals again, she could not.  And then, I see a bunch of whitewater against the catwalk.  I look over to the dolphins just in time to see Star's rear half sliding over the catwalk and into the empty pool.

I froze.  She froze.  The other dolphins chirped and clicked on the other side.

Dolphin group: OMFG DID YOU JUST SEE THAT?!?!?!

I quickly recovered my diver, who too had frozen when she realized that there was suddenly a dolphin in the habitat with her.  Star appeared shell-shocked as well, or maybe she was reveling in her incredible dolphin feat.   Nonetheless, we pulled out the gates that separated each habitat and all the dolphins had access to their habitats for the night.   The dolphins rejoined Star and they resumed normal dolphin activity, but I'd imagine they had a lot of questions for her.

So what happens when a dolphin figures out they can jump from one habitat to the other?  Let's explore that for a second.  

Usually, this is the dolphin attitude towards this topic:

Dolphin 1: Dude, ain't no way over that dock.
Dolphin 2: I know.  It's just too risky.  No one could survive that!

Sound familiar?  

Human 1: Wow, that Mount Everest is a big mountain.  Ain't no way over that thing.
Human 2: I know.  It's just too risky.  No one could survive that!

And what happened in the Mount Everest case?  Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were like, hey, we got this, and they climbed to the top.  Fifteen minutes later, they turned around and ask they climbed down saw one of their pals in their expedition and casually said, "Well, George, we've knocked the bastard off."

They figured out how to climb Mount Everest.  Now e'rybody wanna try.

Tenzing and Edmund set the precedent for what was for centuries deemed impossible.  Other humans scrambled (and still scramble) to do the same.  Not every human wants to climb it obviously, but anyone with a remote interest in mountain climbing does.  I have about as much interest in climbing Mount Everest as I do in stapling a rattlesnake to my face, unless Mount Everest has an elevator installed.

The point is, once someone actually accomplished the "impossible", all of the other humans with the slightest inkling to do the same were not-so-shy to try the same task.  And the same exact situation happens with dolphins.  Sort of monkey-see, monkey-do.

Star's ungraceful slide into a closed-off habitat was the catalyst that created endless possibilities for Middle Flipper events in her group of dolphins.  The next day, Star slid over the catwalk again.

And then, the other dolphins started doing it.  In session, out of session.  This got very disruptive during interactive programs, when we only wanted certain dolphins doing the program at a time (you know, so the entire group of animals didn't do every single program or show).    They'd visit us uninvited while we cleaned their habitats.  They'd interrupt training sessions.  It was a mess, and there was nothing we could do about it.

Do you think I'm some kind of killjoy now?  "Ohhhh Cat," you say.  "The dolphins were just trying to be together!"

Well, yes.  But if I'm sitting in here, writing this Middle Flipper, deep in concentration, and my best friend in the entire universe opens my office door without knocking and starts telling me all about her day, I'm going to be annoyed.  It's not that I don't want to hang out with her, or that I'm not interested in the goings-on of her day, but I'm just not in the mood right now.  I'd consider it rude if someone just barged in on me like that.  Or if I'm having a meeting with my boss, and my family shows up unannounced and interrupts, that's rude too.   And the same essential thing occurred with the dolphins sliding over catwalks into other dolphins' sessions. The dolphins trying to focus did not appear to appreciate the interruption by their pals.


So we had to do something, and we tried everything.  What ended up working was putting large boat buoys along the length of the catwalk to create another visual barrier (like increasing Mount Everest's height by another 1,000 feet).  But you know this is just temporary.  It could take months, years, decades, but at some point, a dolphin is going to figure out how to jump over the buoy line.  And then all the others will have an epiphany, and start doing it too.

It's an intellectual arms race, and a neat one at that.  While you've got to fix the problem, the underlying principle is really amazing.  We as humans are animals who build.  We are spatial, we can figure out how to contain and organize ourselves, materials, animals, objects, information.  Despite our best efforts at it, another animal from a completely different environment with arguably zero concept of construction can devise a way to outsmart and overcome what we humans collectively have spent tens of thousands of years doing.    And then, we use our big engineering brains to solve the problem.  And then, another animal finds a chink in the armor.   And so on and so forth.   Yet again, the Middle Flipper event proves valuable and awe-inspiring.


* My sister's side of the room

** Such as Candy Crush

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