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.  


  1. Thanks Cat, another enjoyable read. Your mention of things being in the pool reminded me of something I wrote a few years back. Thought I would share it with you:
    "I recollect the day my special affection began. It was around six in the morning when I entered the dolphin house and called out to the whale. He was busy doing something on the far side of the pool but he turned and sped towards me. He raised his head from the water and there in the front of his mouth was a frog which he handed to me gently. "Thank you Cuddles." I said as I examined the frog. There wasn't a mark on it. Cuddles sped off and just as fast returned with another frog. Again it was completely uninjured. Off again. I got hold of a bucket and over the next half hour Cuddles almost filled it with frogs. I released them at the lake a bit later."

    1. Thanks, Peter! That's a hilarious story about two of my favorite types of animals :D