Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Middle Flipper Is .... (Part 10)

...a dolphin who attempts to hide his toys from you.

The culprit is on the left! His dad is on the right :)

One of the most spirited dolphins I've ever worked with is a youngster named Chopper.  He is just under three years old, which means there's all kinds of fun to be had.  Some of these kinds of fun include: explosive energy, extreme curiosity, and lots of mischievousness. 

For those of you who've been following this blog, you know I previously wrote about why food isn't (and shouldn't be) the only main reinforcer we're giving animals in many cases.  So it shouldn't come as a surprise that where I work, we use a lot of toys and tactile as reinforcers.  In fact, if the dolphins seem really into it (and hey, sometimes they are not...they aren't robots after all!) we will spend a good deal of time after a show or interactive program just playing.  We dive into the water with them, hurl footballs and basketballs and giant Kongs every which way, and watch the dolphins light up.


You can imagine that a juvenile dolphin is pretty excited about toy time, but believe it or not, all of our dolphins (the oldest being 40) get really into this after-show party.  And at some point, the trainers have to leave and the dolphins usually get some form of enrichment to play with on their own while we try to spread the fun training cheer to our other animal friends.  This means we get out of the water and at least remove some of the toys, with the dolphins helping to retrieve them.  It's a cooperative effort and we don't have too many instances of the animals refusing to give us anything back.  

Recently, we threw a bunch of toys into the water after a great session.  These particular toys were safe for unsupervised play, meaning the dolphins could not destroy them.  So we throw the toys in and I took a quick inventory of what was in there.  Two footballs, two giant Kongs, and one blue basketball.   All four of the dolphins actively played with the toys as I walked away from the habitat.

When I went back for the next show, I realized that there was only one toy in the water.  

That's weird, I thought. 

You and me both, cat with a little c.

I asked the other trainers if they'd taken out any toys since I'd put them in 30 minutes earlier.  They said no.  

I had a hunch, so I swam underneath our floating dock system only to discover that the dolphins had used it as the Secret National Bank of Toys.  I saw all of the "missing" toys placed carefully at various spots underneath the docks.  Were they hiding them from us?  Did they accidentally lose the toys and couldn't get them from underneath?  Were they playing with the toys under there and just lost interest?  I couldn't possibly know, but the questions swirled in my head as I retrieved all of dolphins' toy deposits.

 My google image search for "secret bank account" yielded this image and now I am just confused.

We had a good laugh, the trainers and I.  Our two female dolphins have a tendency to hide things birds have dropped in the habitat overnight (we check our habitats throughout the day to make sure nothing is in there that shouldn't be, but seagulls have other ideas), and then bring them to us at opportune times for a business transaction.  But never had we seen this level of object stowage, and it made us chuckle and appreciate the dolphins that much more.

The next day, I had Chopper for the last dolphin show.  He was incredibly motivated, attentive, and eager.  And he was going to do just about anything for a giant Kong.  Every time I'd bring it out to play with it with him, he made adorable chirping vocalizations and patiently waited for me to throw it.  And as soon as the Kong left my hand, he zoomed after it at top speed, grabbing it with so much momentum he'd leap out of the water and then return to me promptly, spitting it out so I could throw it again.  I had fish for him, which I gave him in large portions throughout the show, but it was this Kong that held his attention.

The stuff of Chopper's dreams: the Kong Bouncer

At the end of the show, as is the way our trainers do things, we asked each other, "Hey was everyone good for a play session?"  The answer was a resounding yes.  So we remained in session.  I dove down with Chopper, gave him lots of long rubs on his side and flukes, played with his Kong, and had a great time.  For several minutes, all I could see from my watery vantage point were dolphins taking off after toys, soliciting rubs from their trainers, and everyone having a great time.  

When it was time to get out, I swam back to the underwater platform where Chopper and I had began our session so I could get out.  I took the Kong from him and tossed it out one more time.  As he zipped after it, I hauled out onto the docks and waited for his return, ready to give him the last of his bucket before we all ended the session.  

Chopper leapt with the kong and made a beeline for my station. 

"What a good little guy," I thought to myself. 

Chopper was a gray blur as he approached his station.  I knelt in anticipation of getting the Kong from him....

.....and watched him swim right past me, underneath the docks, into a quasi-back area (the dolphins are in one big habitat that's only divided at the surface with a docking system, but there are no separate areas in the dolphins' world).  Because the other trainers were trying to wrap up their session, I called out to them:

"Hey guys, hang a second.  I have to get Chopper's Kong back."

Chopper and his Kong Bouncer

Chopper dribbled the Kong in the back area a few times, then sat up with it and looked right at me.  I waited for a few seconds for him to correct himself and swim to his station with me on his own, but time was running out.  I slapped the water to ask him to come back to me, to which he immediately responded.  

"Huh," I thought, as all trainers do in this situation.  "I wonder what that was about."

I mean really, how many of you guys have that experience?  Where you have a great session with an animal, and then at the VERY end, they do something off like that?  And you wonder, "What's going on in their heads right now?"

I waited in great anticipation for Chopper to swim the short distance under the docks back to me.   And waited.  And waited.

Ten seconds went by, and I couldn't see him.  I looked around the habitat, asked the other trainers if they'd seen Chopper.  No.

Twenty seconds passed, and still no sign of Chopper.  I slapped the water.

A gray blur whirled out from underneath the docks and popped up in front of me.  His mouth perfectly closed and his stationing perfectly straight, Chopper sat at me as innocently as any young dolphin could manage...without his Kong.  

A quick glance over my shoulder to the back area confirmed a quickly-developing thought in my mind.  Chopper had hidden the Kong under the docks!

I LAUGHED.  Like, belly-jiggling guffaw type laugh that's on the verge of being embarrassing or startling.  And here was Chopper, sitting perfectly still with his little mouth closed, as if to say, "...what? What?  Like...I'm totally like...doing what I'm supposed to?  I'm not sure what Kong you're talking about, Cat? I think you took it from me, yeah, I'm sure of it."

BAHAHAH Chopper! You're a hoot!

At this point all of the trainers knew what was going on, and we were all doubled over in laughter.  I asked Chopper to go to another trainer so I could get back in the water to see if he had in fact hidden the Kong where I suspected he had.    The toy was giant and red, and it was easy to see underwater without a mask on, so I dove in and began my search.

But I couldn't find it.

Suddenly, I didn't feel like laughing.  If the Kong wasn't under the docks, where could it be?

I came up for a breath of air.

"Did you find it?" the other trainers asked.

"No," I said.  "If I don't find it this time, I'm going to need a mask." And I dove back underneath.

I felt around the docks, which have large grooves that are big enough to create air pockets.  I strained my eyes to see where this little dolphin could've placed his beloved toy.  And suddenly, my hand felt something.  Something that had been wedged into a large air pocket, almost impossible to see from underwater because it was almost completely out of the water.

The Kong.

"I got this from the Toy Reserves"

I had to use two hands and a good bit of force to coax the giant toy from what was clearly Chopper's Safety Deposit Box in the aforementioned Secret Bank of Toys.   The little dude had not only stored the toy under the docks, he had PUSHED it into a crevice.  Did he know we couldn't see it?  Who knows.  But he didn't just whoops, lose control of the toy and leave it.  It took some work for him to get it up there.  It's certainly not out of the question that he anticipated the end of his session (I'm sure trainers of all animals can tell me stories about that).  Perhaps he didn't want playtime with Kong to be over, saw my blond hair and figured I wouldn't notice that he, despite his perfect behavior after the fact, was missing his toy.  I can almost hear his little voice now as he popped up at me empty-handed (empty-mouthed?):

Chopper: Heyyyyyyyyy Cat! Hey! I'm back! Great session!

Me: Uh, where is your Kong Bouncer?

Chopper: What?

Me: The giant Kong you had like twenty seconds ago.  The one we've been playing with for thirty minutes.

Chopper: IDK

Me: Did you hide it under the dock?

Chopper: Oh.  No.  No, no I did not.  You can look there but YOU WON'T FIND ITTTTT.

And then, when I had to send him to another trainer so I could get in to find it, I'm sure he zoomed past the other dolphins the other dolphins saying:


And then, when I found it and dislodged it:

Chopper: Wow, those humans are so smart.

"Those humans are pretty smart.  But they aren't as complicated as us."

Sometimes I wonder if some animals, like dolphins, ever look at humans and say to themselves, "Yeah, humans are pretty smart.  Probably on par with dogs.  But they don't understand things like language or object permanence."   Chopper actually HIDING his toy, then coming back to me as if nothing had happened, really makes me think.  And it really makes me laugh, as I hope you are all doing by now.  

So it is really a Middle Flipper Event that this little guy hid his toy from me?  Well, in the truest and must joyful sense of the phrase, yes it is.  While he wasn't telling me to go fly a kite, he was in his own way telling me no.  And again I say, that's what positive reinforcement training is all about.  To empower the animals to say no.  These types of Middle Flipper Events bring together not just the trainers involved with these animals (because we laughed until our livers exploded*), but with the animals themselves.   If you ever need to find me at work, you can surely find me retrieving hidden Chopper treasures from underneath the docks.

* .....minor exaggeration.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Precious Professional Items of a Marine Mammal Trainer

There are a lot of big feelings flying around the zoo industry right now.  And as important as some of these topics are, I am a big believer in two things:

1) Maintaining what's important is critical
2) Find joy and meaning in everything, no matter how small

You just gotta have fun

How does this apply to two opinionated groups battling each other over a common passion?  You might think it's ridiculous, and if you do, then this blog is really for you.  Because here's what I think: while I've dedicated a handful of Middle Flipper posts to topics that have really incited drama, for the most part I've kept this thing focused on the animals who have influenced me.  Why?  Not because I want to avoid current affairs, but because I have to remember that this is all ultimately centered around the animals.  Not just the ones I care for (although they are my first priority), but the ones who they represent.  

Getting people riled up with a dramatic press release, inflammatory language on social media, or slinging low-blow insults at friends, family members, or colleagues is just not my thing.  I don't think it's constructive for either side (why do there even NEED to be clear cut "sides"?).  


As trainers and animal caregivers, it's so easy in these periods of controversy to feel defeated.  But you're not defeated, it's just part of the ebb and flow.  Focusing on what's important to you (your animal companions/coworkers, what you stand for, your family, your friends) and finding a way to make those things create positive differences in the lives of others is a good way to recalibrate yourself.   And again, find the joy in the little things.

The other day, I was getting ready to do an otter training session when one of my coworkers commented that she'd had her watch for almost a year.


This watch is $30,000 and would last about 9 seconds in my job

Do you know how ridiculously rare this is in the marine mammal field?  A watch that lasts ONE YEAR?

And I thought, "This! This is one of those little things I should really enjoy, because it's hilarious that I'm fawning over a watch."

So I put together a few items I believe are the Precious Professional Items (PPIs) in the Marine Mammal Industry.

Don't get me wrong, it's not like marine mammal training is the only profession that have PPIs.  In my small-mindedness, I imagine lawyers jealously admiring someone's brand new desk chair.  I think about bankers coveting a brand new, company-issued Apple laptop computer.  Maybe private practice doctors cherish expensive pens or something.

Can one drool over a desk chair? Sure, if it's got the right ergonomic support. 

Of course, animal trainers don't have expensive pens.  We might have A desk chair, or (if we're lucky) more than one computer older than or equal to 5 years old.  But we've got stuff we use every day just like anyone else in a profession.  And that stuff gets lost, old, and/or worn very fast.  Here's my list of my PPIs.

1) Waterproof watches

Though your life is but a brief blip in Time, we so love you.

It's a key facet to my job that I'm on time.  Shows, interactions, sessions, meetings, LUNCH TIME! I have to know what time it is.  Of course, I'm around salt water for most of the day not just from the habitats, but I work right on the beach.  It's not a happy place in which electronics spend lengthy periods of time.   

And so the necessity for waterproof watches is born.  Okay wait, when I say "waterproof" I mean "water resistant", since very few trainers can afford to buy a legit waterproof watch.   So we're talking your WalMart brand, $14 watch that is water resistant to 30 feet or something.  

Any readers out there ever have a tamagotchi?  Remember how much time and love you put into that little pixelated creature with its pixelated poop and cute little electronic cries for attention and food?  Remember when you realized it's just a pixelated creature and you remembered the real world, and you didn't clean up the little poops anymore and before you know it, your tamagotchi is really sad and getting sick, and then it just dies?  Remember that feeling of guilt and sadness?  That's what it's like when your watch starts to die.

Don't Tamagotchi and drive

Spending $14 on a watch is not something any trainer wants to do.  That $14 can buy a decent amount of groceries.  It can pay for two months of Netflix, or a dinner out with friends.  Considering the small amount of money we as animal trainers make, spending ANY cash is a difficult process.  So when you buy that watch, which you absolutely need for your job, you want to make sure it lasts.  You might splurge a few extra bucks thinking "Hey, I'm getting what I pay for, right?"

And then one day, weeks or months after your purchase, you look down at your watch.  And you notice A Bubble on the INSIDE of the watch screen.  Or, the most terrifying, you see the Mystery Code From Hell appear.  

You know what I'm talking about.

You're going about your day, la la la, and you peer down at your watch because you know lunch must be coming up anytime now.  And what you're expecting to see is a digital readout of:


But what you actually see is some demented collection of symbols, none of which you've ever seen before in your life.  


The sort of weird code we were introduced to in The Ring when they attempted to figure out where the VHS tape came from.  

So you see the demonic digits glaring at you, and you know that your watch is dying and that maybe, someone is going to crawl out of your TV tonight and eat you alive.  But then you realize you're safe, because you're a poor dolphin trainer and don't even OWN a TV, HA!

But she might come out of your broken dolphin trainer WalMart watch.

But I digress.  As trainers, we know our watches are on borrowed time (ha ha!), with life spans lasting maybe into several months.  

Our watches are so precious to us, that when we leave facilities we will sometimes will our watches to coworkers we leave behind.  ESPECIALLY if it's a watch that's lasted a lot longer.  

"WHAT BRAND OF WATCH IS THAT?" We'll ask our lucky coworker, the one with the year-old watch.

"I don't know, Sue the intern gave it to me last year.  Looks like it's from WalMart."

And our hearts sink, because we know they've found the one lucky watch that will actually survive to its warranty date.  Like so many disappointing lottery tickets, we blow through watches with hope eternal, but plenty of let-downs.  

2) Hair ties

You can never have too many.  No like, literally.  It's impossible to have to many because you lose them all the time.

Hair ties are one of a few tangible items that exist in alternate dimensions not yet explained or understood by science.  Some other items of this nature include: socks.

Dolphin trainers buy hair ties in massive quantities.  I think a very smart dolphin trainer could run a killer business if they created the Oriental Trading Company magazine but just for hair ties.   I can in fact guarantee that if hair ties were sold by metric ton, marine mammal facilities would likely buy an equal amount of fish to hair ties.  So we'd have Fish Truck day and then we'd have Hair Tie Truck day, and each one would be really important.

It's like you buy a pack of 30, but you only can find two at any given time.

Sure, lots of hair ties break.  But most of them just disappear.  Never around the animals, of course, because you'd notice if your hair tie disappeared when actually working (hello! your hair would be all over the place).  But it's when you get back to the locker room to change to go home for the night, or are sitting in your car, that something mysterious and supernatural occurs.  The hair tie leaves your hair and vibrates into another plane of existence. 

I'm no quantum physicist, but I have a reasonable suspicion that Jimmy Hoffa is sitting in a bizarre in-between world surrounded by heaps mismatched socks and dolphin trainers' hair ties.

Keeper and Master of Hair Ties

So when we lose Our Last Hair Tie, we turn into panhandlers to our fellow trainers.

"Do you have a spare hair tie?" is one of the most commonly uttered phrases in our field.

The decent rule of thumb is if you have extras, you lend or give one to a trainer in need.  Why? For humanity's sake and all that, yes.  But also because no matter how hard you try to keep track of your ties, no matter how many locks and keys and inventories you create to maintain a steady number of them, all of your hair ties will disappear without a trace.  And then, you will be in need.

3) Towels


If you want to win a trainer's heart, don't worry about fancy jewelry, concert tickets, or delicious food.  If there's some cutie you're eyeing in a wetsuit, or you want to cheer up a coworker having a rough time, this is what you buy them:

A giant, fluffy bath towel.  One just for them.

TOWELS are KING.  Most facilities issue some kind of towels that are usually ones that don't sell in the gift shop or are donated from peoples' homes.  And while they are fine for use, they are not always utilitarian.  For example, some of the towels I've used at work do a better job smearing water over my skin than actually drying it.  I'm not making this up, I've actually used that type of towel as a makeshift umbrella when I've had to run to my car in the rain, because it doesn't absorb water.  

Even if you have really luxurious towels at your place of employment, there are never enough.  I have a feeling a small number of towels join their friends the Hair Ties to rendez-vous in the 5th dimension, but most of the time there just aren't enough clean towels to go around.  This is especially true on rainy and/or cold days.    If you want to talk about a glimpse into post-apocolyptic mania, watch a group of dolphin trainers fight for the Good Towels.  They'd run past gourmet food and shirtless men* just to get their hands on a big, warm, clean towel to dry off on.

I....may choose him over a good towel.

Trainers spend more mental energy planning out on when to use Good Towels throughout a cold day than you'd probably think.  It's not as simple as grabbing a towel and that's it.  The inner-dialogue goes something like this:

"I'm on the 10:00 dolphin show, then I'm doing an in-water session at 12:30.  I'll stay in my wetsuit and use a Bad Towel then, and when I need to change into my dry clothes for my meeting at 3:00, then I'll use the Good Towel.  But I'll save the Good Towel for the end of the day for my shower, at which point I'll feel I'm ready to part with it."

4) Fancy Leftovers For Lunch

Now that's fancy!

Oh.  oh.  Poor animal trainers with giant stomachs stare with green envy at the fancy leftovers of other trainers' lunches.  

While the rest of us are eating microwaveable sale items, we watch you with your steaming Fancy Restaurant Food you got When Your Family Visited, or When You Went On A Hot Date.  We poke at our rubbery, blue-light special meals sheathed in plastic while you devour the remnants of a savory culinary delight.  


We're not just jealous of the actual food you're eating, but of the experience.  Not many of us can afford to Go Out, so when we do, it's a big event.  When it's another coworker's leftovers we're drooling over, we imagine what it was like to be at that restaurant, eating food that cost the $14 we just spent on a WalMart watch.

Crappy watch? Or delightful dish? Decisions decisions...

"Did you SEE what Annie had for LUNCH?" we'll ask, as if it were news as exciting as finding out someone was pregnant and/or won the lottery.  

"YES! She got to go to That Restaurant! She had so much fun! The food is so good! Now the lunch room smells so good!" they say.

"She's so lucky!" you say.  And then you go back to your cheese whales.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

These little treasured PPIs make me smile every time I think about them.  Why? Because it reminds me not to take anything for granted.  A WalMart watch is not really a big deal, except it is sometimes in the moment.  

Pondering the Universal Enigma of the Missing Hair Ties is a nice mental distraction and always brings a smile to my face. 

Finding a really nice towel after a difficult day is a small but comforting oasis.  

Living vicariously through another person's fun time out brings you closer together.  The little, simple things in life are so oft passed over as trivial and meaningless, even though we give their meaning much more gravity than we realize.  Why not embrace that?  The way I see it, those little bits of happiness are easy to come by and can make a bad day seem more tolerable.  Thinking these things are stupid only means you're not seeing the forest for the trees: each day is packed full of these little moments and silly things that can make us (or someone else) smile.


* Unless we're talking Chris Hemsworth or Zac Efron, in which case I'd likely use their hotness as a primary source of warmth

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Get Your Hand Outta the Cookie Jar: Food Ain't Everything

Food.  It's what gets me going in the morning.  No, really, it is.  Because sometimes one of my coworkers brings in these donuts from this awesome place nearby.  And sometimes Publix has BOGOs to die for, the kind of deal you just can't say no to, and that really makes me happy.  I love, love, love food.  I'd do just about anything such as murder for macaroni and cheese.*
JUST LOOK AT IT! I want it.

But when it comes to training animals, food remains a point of controversy for two separate reasons.

1) The value of food is a point of friendly debate between animal trainers.  Some feel that it is the strongest reinforcer for any animal, while others say it is not.  

2) Naysayers of our profession declare that we as trainers "force the animals to perform for food"

So let's take a look at one of my most favorite topics.

Marine mammal trainers tend to define primary reinforcement as "anything an animal needs to survive".  This includes food, water, and some people throw in "air."  I'm not really aware of anyone who uses air as a motivator.  Also, there are some animals who may strongly object to using air as a motivator, such as my goldfish.

How'm I supposed to breathe with aiiiir aiiiiir aiiiiiir

Secondary reinforcers, again according to some trainers, are therefore "anything that's not a primary reinforcer" OR it's defined as something that is conditioned.  Most trainers know that secondaries can fit into one or both of these definitions; not all secondaries need to be conditioned to be reinforcing.  

But what I found really interesting was a discussion among non-marine mammal trainers who defined primary reinforcement as the MAIN reinforcer of a particular animal; the reinforcer that appears to have the biggest effect on behavior.  And secondaries are well, lesser.   So for example, one of the dolphins with whom I work appears to find footballs very reinforcing.  She learns new behaviors and broken behaviors are fixed quickly when the football is used as a main reinforcer.  These behaviors are not as quickly trained or fixed by using food; and she is a picky eater.  So her primary reinforcer could be considered the football in this definition.

Of course, we are just getting hung up on semantics now.  But I submit to you these definitions to get your wheels turning in your head.  Which definitons are you more likely to use in your own training? And why?

I am not one to judge other training programs; I can't possibly understand the nuances of why certain reinforcers are used versus others.  There are zoos establishing a training program with animals who have previously not been exposed to formal operant conditioning, and perhaps there aren't many opportunities (yet!!) for non-food reinforcement.  For example, training a grizzly bear for a voluntary blood behavior in a protected contact setting may mean that the bear is only receiving a food reward for said behavior.  That doesn't mean that down the road there won't be opportunities for other reinforcement, but there are times when food IS your fastest way to teach an animal to be calm and trusting.  You have to start where you have to start, know what I mean?

There's more to me than just being a hungry dude!

But I do know that most marine mammal trainers do not rely on food to shape or condition behavior.   There is always a heavy undertow of "anthropomorphism" when we train (no matter how hard we try to avoid it), because we would be silly to assume that all animals are motivated by food and food alone.  I think this is where some trainers get trapped; they try so hard to be clinical and "scientific" about training that they assume that the only motivator any animal could "want" is food.  To assume the animal likes anything else (e.g. toys, tactile, new training) without previously pairing it with food is anthropomorphic and therefore forbidden.

But are we really being honest with ourselves about that mentality?   I don't think we are.  While I admit I'm more on the "animals are conscious" end of the spectrum and I fully admit that, I don't believe you have to have my view of animals to have a great animal training program that actually looks at what shapes behavior.  And most facilities with people with varying opinions on the "whys" of this subject employ a varied, non-food based training program. 

For those of you who want to stick with scientific concepts, we can talk about the Drive State Theory, which is an actual psychological theory that essentially says different individuals are motivated to different degrees by different reinforcers and punishers.   So I love mac and cheese, but at some point eating too much of that is going to put me into a Trouble in Tummy Town scenario, and then it becomes punishing.  You can give me money to do certain tasks, but not ALL tasks.  What will I work for with NO questions asked 100% of the time? Nothing is reinforcing enough for me to always do what I'm asked.  And the same applies for animals.

I take that back.  I'd never stop eating donuts.  I'd eat them until I couldn't anymore because I went into a diabetic coma and never came back.  

Let's get to the meat (or seitan for all of us vegetarians) of the topic at hand.  Why shouldn't we rely on food as a main reinforcer across the board? Here are some good reasons:

1) Food is a limiting reagent.  At some point, most of us get full.  Our stomachs can only handle so much food.  And certain times of year (e.g. breeding seasons, fluctuating temperatures, NFL playoffs) have different caloric requirements.  
Many marine mammals commonly found in human care do not eat nearly as much in the warmer months as they do in the winter times.  Yet, for many places, summer is the busiest time.  How then do we mitigate LESS food interest with MORE shows/presentations/interactions?  If we relied on food from the start, we will inevitably get into trouble.

If Homer can get full, ANYONE can

2) Food is just, food.  Unless you have an animal who is super duper food motivated (like me), you're eventually going to run into an animal who looks at you and thinks, "You look oddly like a vending machine, human.  You can do better than that."  Variable reinforcement with food is always an option, but it's not enough for a really great training program.

Don't settle at being one of these

Now I will say for other animals in zoo settings, this particular point may not apply.  Many animals have a rich sense of taste, or at least spend a lot of time ingesting their food (e.g. parrots tearing apart a banana, the way I eat oreos and try to make them into quadruple and octuple-stuffed towers before I dislocate my jaw with delight trying to eat them).

You can use a variety of foods outside of the staple diet.  If an elephant's favorite snack food is a cantaloupe, that's something you can use variably in a training session as a special snack.  It's in addition to the base diet and in and of itself is exciting and new because the elephant may not see cantaloupes every day.  This concept is challenging with marine mammals who swallow their fish whole in a matter of 0.8 seconds and don't appear to savor much of anything.

3) When an animal isn't feeling well, or (we talked about this in point number 1) is in breeding season, they aren't going to feel hungry.  If they only see you as a source of food, then why would they come over to you if they're not hungry?


I'm simplifying these three reasons; I am blonde after all.  But the points within are worth thinking about.  Many trainers have stories of getting voluntary blood samples from dolphins who were not hungry because they used a favorite toy or lots of tactile.  Young calves, who have no interest in fish because they're drinking copious amounts of milkshake-thick milk every hour, come over to their trainers to learn critical medical behaviors (and lots of fun ones, too) for nothing other than attention and toys.  I friend of mine allowed an elephant she works with to play with certain apps on her phone during a voluntary medical procedure as reinforcement.  That's how it is, naysayers (and that's how it ought to be, trainers)!

When I was in San Diego a few weeks ago at the Very Popular Aquarium, I witnessed this first hand.  This particular Very Popular Aquarium has been under more scrutiny than normal thanks to a silly film that rhymes with Smlacksmish.   They say that the animals are starved or deprived of food when they do not emit a behavior correctly.  That the main drive for the animals is hunger, no matter how we trainers spin it.

Except that this Very Popular Aquarium is known and admired for doing entire shows on no food; using only secondaries as we defined earlier by marine mammal standards  (non-food items).   I spent a day and a half with these trainers and watched them do husbandry, interactive, and public presentation sessions using toys, tons of tactile, and a few snacks here and there.  Their dolphins were all attentive, many of whom solicited attention vis-a-vis rubs (not begging for food) outside of session.

Footballs are great dolphin currency

From personal experience having worked at four different aquariums, I can tell you that even the animals I've worked with who are very business-oriented (FISH PLEASE) show much better attention and energy when we start incorporating non-food reinforcers into the rotation.   But many, many more animals (ranging from penguins to dolphins), once other non-edible reinforcers are added to their training sessions, often have a faster learning curve.

Yes, of course we all know an animal who just wants to eat snacks.  I call these animals the Lunchboxes. I really relate to the Lunchboxes for reasons that should be clear to you at this point.  As trainers, our job is to make sure we're really paying attention to our animals.  This translates in a training scenario as paying attention to what the animal is learning and retaining when we use different types of reinforcers; not what we HOPE or WANT the animal to find motivating.  So if we have an animal who just loses their mind to get a handful of fish, then okay, that's your primary motivator.  That's knowing your animal.   It also means that, when sometimes a sea lion really focuses when they get a shoulder rub, that reinforcer may at some point change its value for a period of time, and you have to be ready to adjust (and not force) to that change.

We will! We promise!

The ultimate lesson in choosing your reinforcers is not about what you want.  It's about what the animal wants.  Whether or not you agree with the rhetoric I'm using (maybe you don't think animals can want, maybe you do), you can appreciate the basis of what I'm saying.  Are you throwing fish in your seal's face because that's what they "should" want?  Or are you doing it because they are motivated, focused, and actually learning?  Do you assume that your Lunchbox animal only likes food, and therefore that's where you as a trainer will stay without adding new reinforcers to their lives?

Furthermore, for the dissenters who are starting to read this blog, we can talk about the notion of marine mammals being "deprived" of food.  It isn't a matter of CAN a human being take away something?  Sure.  But why on earth would you do that if you really cared about your animals?  If you really were creating and cultivating a training program that was a two-way street? The answer is, you wouldn't.

If dolphins don't want to participate in a show, okay.  If a sea lion blows off an interaction, fine.  That is a level of comfort the animals have to give us the Middle Flipper.  It is.  They are choosing to say, "Nope, nothing you have interests me."  That could mean they're distracted by social or ethological reasons.  It could mean you have become a boring trainer and need to take another look at how motivating the session is and with what you're USING to motivate the animal.   It could mean there is something the animal is startled by or nervous about.

Animals who are forced to work for food, who are truly starved or deprived, do not act like this.  They are afraid to fail or to tell us off.  There are actual scientific articles about punishment and deprivation as it pertains to animal training in a lab setting.  These animals feel there is no choice; they must do what is asked of them OR ELSE.  They display neurotic behavior, frustration, very high rates of aggression, or worse, they become listless.

Your animals oughta feel comfortable saying no

There is no "or else" in marine mammal training.  At the end of the day, the animals get all the food they want to eat.  Read that last sentence carefully:  the animals eat all the food they want to eat.  NOT "all the food they earned in a training session".  There are times when they animals get full, and if you're relying too much on food as a reinforcer, they will blow you off because they are full.  

I find it frustratingly irritating the irony of how so many so-called animal rights activists acknowledge that animals are highly intelligent, but say that they are deprived of food so they will "perform".  Do they genuinely not realize that the animals are smart enough to know how to communicate to their trainers when they aren't feeling a particular behavior or an entire session?  That they know that they will get all of the food they want to eat?  If dissenters to our profession continue using this point as a main reason why what we do is wrong, then they are saying that our animals are incapable of understanding concepts beyond a few minutes at a time into the future.  They're wrong about that (how else would training work, anyway, if the animals had three-minute memories?).


Police dogs are trained with 0% food reinforcers, and have an incredibly high percentage of correct behavior emitted.  If food were key, don't you think a program like a K-9 unit in a police force or military unit would rely on it to ensure that the animals did the task at hand?  Of course.  But why don't they use food as a reinforcer, even if they have an animal who is food-motivated?  Refer to the "animals get full" point.  You can't have a rescue and recovery dog suddenly give up because he is full when lives depend on his motivation level.  A favorite toy and attention from their handler is enough to motivate a dog to do incredible things for very long periods of time.  

I worked with a sea lion who enjoyed her snack time, but was by no means an animal that could be asked to do something just because you had a bucket in your hand.  She was a very picky old lady, who would choose trainers seemingly at random to just not eat from or interact with at all in the most dramatic of ways (including but not limited to: blowing sea lion snot all over you).   Even if she wasn't hungry, she'd run towards her preferred trainers for a good long shoulder rub.  She'd run through her repertoire of behaviors for some lovin'.  

So no matter what percentage of your training program uses food versus non-food reinforcers, it's always a good idea to reflect on how motivating our motivators are to each individual animal.  It is not effective to apply the same reinforcer across the board.  You might be able to get away with it in many cases, but do we really want to settle with mediocrity?  Don't we want to push ourselves every day to improve the quality of life for our animals, to never settle for the status quo when it comes to training?  The answer you give me oughta' be YES!

Drama drips from sea lions (or is that drool?)

So what if your training program only uses food?  It's okay; we are all in different situations with different animals.  If your animals have spent years seeing their human caretakers as only vending machines, you can't just take that away from them.  It isn't about every animal doing entire sessions on no food right NOW.  It's about moving each animal, to their own degree, to a place where the training isn't all about food.  Even tiny variations can make a difference in situations where you are working with a dangerous animal who is wired to think with their stomach, and is not at a point where tactile or toy play is possible.  Train little, fun behaviors that challenge the animal's mind.  Give them an enrichment after a great session.  As long as you are constantly striving towards something better and richer, that's what matters.

Keep those wheels turning, trainer friends!  Let's continue to make a difference in the lives of the animals we are honored to know.

* This statement is intended for sarcastic purposes only.  I'd obviously never commit murder for any reason.  Unless someone took my macaroni and cheese away from me, then it's justifiable.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Things I Learned from Nellie

Nellie, a 61-year old bottle-nosed dolphin resident of Marineland Florida, passed away a few days ago. In light of this recent event, I don't know if anyone will be surprised that the topic of this blog covers an animal known well by many.  

I can't get the photo I based this painting on off of my hard drive because I lost the cable, so here's a photo of a painting of a photo I took of Nellie.  Womp womp.

I had the honor of working with and getting to know Nellie for a period of about five years.  I've written about Nellie's 58th birthday, which gives you a little insight into what it was like to work with her while I was actually still at Marineland.  That post was written over three years ago.  Since learning of Nellie's passing, I had time to really reflect on what it was that she really did as an individual and as an icon.

Obviously, there are lessons to be learned from someone like Nellie. I normally like to organize my blog in a better way. I decided I was just going to write down what I've been thinking about over the past few days, and serve it up to you, this tribute to a very special dolphin.

For those of you who do not know, 61 is really old for this particular species of dolphin.  It's essentially equivalent to a human reaching 120, which I plan on doing because I figure there are a lot of perks to getting really, really old.  For example, you can act senile and put your car in reverse on the highway but you don't have to BE senile, but everyone just assumes that's the case and just gets out of your way.  

You can also get away with just about anything when you're old and really sweet; a fact that did not seem to miss Nellie.  

Another photo of a painting of a photo I took (and I'm confused).

Of course, there are some differences when it comes to old human ladies versus old dolphin ladies.  Luckily, I have real life examples to illustrate this point.

Human example:

It's okay! She's 100!

I was driving home from work one day and decided to stop by Publix (you know, the best grocery store ever).  So I'm in there, buying afternoon donuts, and I literally remember thinking "This place is packed! Everyone is busy.  And everyone is cranky!"  People (the customers, not the staff) were just being snappy and rude.  I wanted to get the heck out of there, so I put my head down, bought my sugary goodness, and made a beeline for my car.   There were a few people behind me; three middle-aged women who were complaining about something.  I kept a brisk pace so I could make it to my car and avoid the weird, snarky tension in the area.


I noticed a car pulling out in reverse from its parking spot.  It became clear quickly that the driver had no idea that I was behind said vehicle, so I ran backwards to avoid the black Cadillac sedan as it steadily backed into another car. 

CRASH! Tinkle tinkle tinkle.*  I stood motionless, mouth agape, as I watched the old woman driver of the vehicle continue to look straight forwards, totally not reacting to what just happened.  Then, she put the car in drive and drove at the same steady speed back into her parking space.

"ARE YOU OKAY?" one of the middle-aged women asked me.

I assured them I was, and then I heard it.

The man whose car had been crunched ran out of Publix, unintentionally ('though uncannily) doing his best impression of a lowland gorilla who had enough command of the English language to create colorful expletives AND wear a nice tie. 

"WHAT THE %*#%!!!!!!!" he exclaimed, tie flapping as he ran towards his car.

I looked over at the old woman in the car, terrified for her.  Not that the man didn't have the right to be upset that his car was hit, but the woman inside appeared to be so ancient and small, I didn't feel it was right to be aggressively cruel to her.


As the man approached her car, I winced, bracing for what I was sure to be a really awful interaction. 

The door of the Cadillac opened slowly, and the old lady struggled to get out of the car.  She was about five foot tall and looked to be about 9 zillion years old.  Her coke bottle classes made her eyes look huge and she was majorly hunched over.  She turned to face her would-be verbal assailant, placed her hands in a dramatic, sweeping gesture on her hips and said,

"Allllllllright! What'd I hit?"

The man actually stopped in his tracks.  Oh, this old woman had swiftly disarmed any Angriness ready to explode all over her and turned the man into a kind, thoughtful person.  He gently approached her and said, "Oh, you hit my car, but it isn't that bad.  Are you okay?"

"I hit your CAR? Well, that explains the awful sound!" she said.  "How about you call my son, he can take care of this.  I'm not supposed to even be here, ya know."

Of course, this story would've had a different income had the old woman been a 23 year old hipster kid with a confused mohawk thing (like, you know how they are like shaving the sides of their head? Is that still a mohawk? I am so unhip) or a 40 year old stock broker.   It's even possible that the old woman was just out to cause trouble, and chose to back into an expensive car and then act like she had no clue thank you very much.  If she did, her age let her get away with it.  Tee hee. :)

This is but a facade of innocence

Dolphin example:

Nellie was a very healthy animal for the entire time I worked with her (ages 54 to two months before her 60th birthday).  But none of us are spared ALL of the effects of getting really old, and the only hint anyone would have that Nellie was way over the hill was her eyesight.  She developed vision problems related to old age, but that didn't slow her down at all (more on this later).  And of course, she was able to navigate just find because she could use her echolocation.  With a few small adjustments in our training, Nellie's day was very much like all of the other dolphins'.  And that included how many new behaviors she was learning, and what kinds of sessions she had the opportunity to participate in.

Nellie and her son, chillin'

So one day, I was scheduled to do a program with a group of dolphins that included Nellie.  The program involved allowing a small group of guests to go into the water up to their waist for their interaction.  I chose to hang out with Nellie.

Her interactive programs were pretty solid.  She didn't do as many as the younger dolphins, but she seemed to have no problems with the shallow-water and dry guest sessions (and she'd let you know when she didn't want to participate because....she wouldn't participate).   I was excited to get some in-water time with Nellie, and thought if she was up for it, it'd be great to introduce her to some guests, because everyone who met her remembered her.

However, a few minutes into the program it was clear Nellie was not going to meet any guests.  I brought a pool noodle out with me with the intention of using it as enrichment with Nellie, but I didn't really know how much she'd play with it.  Luckily for me, Nellie solved this mystery.  The second I put the noodle into the water, she grabbed on to it and started very, very slowly swimming up and down the underwater ledge.  And she essentially walked me like a dog.

Pool noodles: not just for older lady humans anymore.

Of course, there are behavioral decisions to make in situations like this, mostly involving waiting until the animal stops doing what you don't want him or her to do, and then moving on.  But Nellie was over 500 pounds, and she was 56 years old at the time.  By gosh by golly, that noodle was the focus of her attention and it was certainly better than her swimming off and not participating at all in the session.   

So I decided to let her walk me up and down the ledge.  She never once pulled or jerked the noodle, either.  If I stopped, she'd stop, but wouldn't let go.  Then she'd slowly start to swim, and if she felt any tension on the noodle, she'd stop for a few seconds, then try to go again.

Eventually, she let go of the noodle and re-focused.  We were able to do a full session, although she didn't really seem into the fish.  She was clearly really into the noodle.  So I fed her what I could, and then used the noodle as reinforcement for desirable behavior, including allowing the guests to play with her using the object of her affection.

The entire time this session is going on I'm thinking, "Nellie totally knows what she's doing.  She knows she can get away with this, because she's so old."

I'm pretty sure Nellie thought my mom was one of many personal massage therapists in her life

But then I realized what I was saying.  I was really saying that...I was "letting" Nellie choose her reinforcement in a session because she was old.  Wait, wait, wait, something seems wrong with that, doesn't it?  It should have little to nothing to do with age; this technique ought to be applied to everyone.  

And hence, a lesson from Nellie was learned: you can't assume you know what's motivating to an animal just because they "need" it (like food, for example).  You SHOULD let the animal show you what is more motivating.  If Nellie was super into the noodle, it was irrelevant that she was so old; I should read the signs and use whatever they're into to reinforce and motivate.  That session with Nellie opened my eyes to my sessions with other dolphins; no more broad assumptions.  And even if Nellie was using her charming senescence to get her way, who cares?  The bigger lesson was what was important.

One can always count on a cat to scold one. 

Another lesson I learned was how the power of one can reach an exponentially larger group of people in a way you wouldn't believe.  You might roll your eyes at me being kind of sappy, but I'm totally serious.  People knew Nellie.  She wasn't the only dolphin there who had a big fan club, but everyone at least knew of her.  People involved in the animal training field knew her.  Guests dating back from her BIRTH in 1953 (Nellie was older than my parents, by the way) remembered her.  Jacksonville University made Nellie their mascot, for crying out loud.  That dolphin made a huge impact on people.

Why can't real cake be like that?

Why?  I don't know for sure, but she got a lot of media exposure because of her age.  She was the oldest dolphin in human care for around 30 years.   She was a beautiful dolphin, and easily recognizable.  And one of the sweetest things about her was her friendship to Lilly Champagne.

This chick has great trainer hair.  Sigh.  

Lilly was an Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin, but with a rare skin color.  She was a blonde (hence the name " Champagne").  She came to Marineland when she was 6 years old with massive shark bite wounds to her eye and her side; scars that she still bore almost 50 years later when I first met her.    

You can see the shark bite over her eye, but she was still gorgeous

Lilly deserves a Middle Flipper post all to herself, so I'll just say that she was Nellie's closest companion for decades.  Decades.  And people knew about the friendship; they commented on it constantly.   When Lilly passed away (she was in her 50s), Marineland received condolences for Nellie.  People wanted to know, would Nellie be okay now that her best friend had gone?

Blond jokes do not apply to blond dolphins, that I know.

Their friendship (I can feel all the purists ethologists bristling at my diction, but give me a break) was another major lesson to a broad audience: it made people care about dolphins.  While I can go off on a 67,000 page tangent on why this is unfortunate, people tend to only care about animals if they can relate to them.  That isn't me saying that there aren't a lot of similarities between humans and other animals, but that's not the topic of this particular blog.   

For all of the varied opinions out there on the matter, it is an undeniable fact that the laymen really, really opens their hearts to animals they previously cared NOTHING for if they can see a little of themselves in them.  Nellie and Lilly's bond was a strong example of a way human beings could relate to them.  Sure, the bond between mother and calf made sense.  Maybe even between family members, or really young dolphins hanging out with other young dolphins.  

Nellie and Lilly, human edition

But two little old ladies (okay, they were like 500 pounds)? Who've been friends since they were young, and now spent their twilight years together?  That really got people's attention.  It presented opportunities for a dialogue with our guests: yes, old lady dolphins are documented having decades-long friendships (just check out Randy Wells' research off the coast of Sarasota, FL).  The bond was so special that Marineland for a while had Nellie and Lilly as their logo.  

Isn't that awesome?

Nellie's long life set the bar for our industry.  She didn't reach 61 because she was poorly taken care of, or because she'd been suffering for years and years.  Of course, we can't all live to be 100.  But certainly poor quality of life is not an ingredient to reaching an extreme age.  Nonetheless, Nellie's title as "oldest dolphin in human care" helped set the standards for dolphin care starting in the 1980s.  Now, dolphins are reaching their life expectancy and beyond with consistency.   

And we turn our attention to the healthy wild populations....and the unhealthy ones, the ones whose average life expectancy is 12.  Twelve years old.  What is happening out there?  Disease, direct and indirect results of human pollution via the waterways.   We know bottle-nosed dolphins are capable of living into their 40s, 50s, and 60s if their bodies let them paired with a good quality of life.  We've set the standard for dolphins in human care, now let's set that standard BACK to where it ought to be out in the wild.  

There are countless people (and I'm sure some dolphins) mourning the loss of Nellie.  It's not to say it came as a surprise, in the same way we are not "surprised" when an elderly family member or friend passes away.  But at the same time, with people or animals who get to extremely old ages, you know in your head the end is inevitable.  But it never seems around the corner, either.  Nellie lived a long, strong life and influenced more lives than - well let's be honest with ourselves - most of us ever will.   And we ought to be very grateful to her for that.  

And to all of the other geriatric animals out there, teaching the same lessons and touching the same hearts, this post is for you, too.  Nellie was one of an elite group of elder animals who awe and inspire their caretakers, guests, and the general public.  For those of you who have or had the privilege of knowing animals like Nellie, never take that for granted.

In loving memory.

Nellie's birth

* The sound of glass breaking, not someone peeing