Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Middle Flipper Is….(Part 13)

...a dolphin who (continues to) use floating docks as his own personal banking system.

A few months ago, I wrote about Chopper.  You can read about him here, but in case you only have time to read this blog, here’s a quick recap:

Chopper; 3 years old; Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin; hides toys under docks.

Here he is!

Normally, I like to write Middle Flipper events about completely different stories or individual animals.  You know, to keep the content fresh.  But due to recent events that have since transpired, I figured you’d all appreciate an update on little Chopper dearest.

Unsurprisingly, Chopper lost some interest in lodging his toys under the docks.  I say unsurprisingly because as trainers, we all know about desensitization.  At some point, putting EEDs* in hard-for-humans-to-reach-places was going to get kind of lame and boring.  And if you’re not an animal trainer, but an animal lover and/or parent, then you know how easily kids get over toys, games, or movies they once could barely exist without.  I mean, even in high school I watched Monsters Inc about eleven theaters.  And then when it came out on DVD I watched it every day for at least a month solid, mostly because my mental age has never progressed past 10 and also because Pixar is amazing.  Obviously, I habituated to Monsters Inc and eventually stopped watching it with such fervor.  

Annnnnd then this came out and I watched it about 7e45 times

And so young Master Chopper waned in his sneaky toy-hiding missions.  Until....

I don’t know how this happened.  I don’t know who started it.  All I know is that working with smart animals proves to me every day how unbelievably out of touch humans are with their place in the intellectual continuum in the Animal Kingdom, because Chopper and his pals found an even more fun game with our floating docks.  

To give you an idea of what our dock system is like, it looks like this:

Background: Floating docking system
Middleground: Obligatory embarrassing photo of coworker 

And under those floating docks are floats made of the same thick, sturdy plastic.  We put them there in order to provide more stability for us humans when we’re walking on them.  Stability is especially important for me, so I’ve been very happy with the extra help while I continue my never ending battle with the gravitational pull of planet Earth.

The floats aren’t very heavy, but because they are hollow/filled with air (um, d’uh, they’re floats) they wedge themselves firmly in place under the dock pieces.  And there they stay, until us humans decide we need to move them to a better location.

Well, one day, I’m sure at one of the dolphins’ Weekly Strategy Meetings for Human Management, someone had the bright idea to dislodge the floats and make them into fun, fun toys.  We humans came in one morning and saw like seven of these massive floats just bobbing freely along the surface of the water.  A couple of the dolphins were playing with them in that state, but the others were hard at work dismantling some more.

While this wasn’t necessarily a concern for the dolphins’ health (they are so strong that it was really no big deal for them to pop them out of place, and the floats are waaaaaay too big for someone to accidentally swallow them), it was sure annoying to go down onto our docks and feel tipsy.  

It was actually pretty cool to watch how these guys worked to get the floats out.  Each dolphin had his or her own methodology, ranging from Wow That’s Really Smart to I JUST BEAT IT UNTIL IT COMES LOOSE.  I mean, humans tend to work with that spectrum, too.  Yeah yeah, dolphins are smart.  But so are humans.  We say, “Humans are smart” collectively, but what does that actually mean?  It means that we aren’t a banana slug, but it also doesn’t specify how individuals are smart.  I am pretty good with language and conceptual skills, but I’m pretty sure any alien lifeform observing me complete a Sodoku puzzle would rate my intelligence somewhere between “amoeba” and “lima bean.”

(Hint: It's closer to Lima Bean)

As such, not every dolphin shares the same cognitive strengths as another.  Chopper is a young guy, so he lacks finesse in some of his tasks but for the most part he is a fast learner who problem solves pretty quickly.  His best pal Cosmo approaches problem-solving in a way appreciated by types of humans associated with activities such as: linebacker.  So yes, Cosmo can figure these issues out, but he tends to just throw his weight around until he gets what he wants when it comes to toys and other inanimate objects (side note: with animate beings he is a giant teddy bear).

Anyways, where was I?  So the dolphins discovered this tremendously fun game of deconstruction.  We tried several methods to get them to stop.  We put tons of floats in the water, hoping maybe they just really liked playing with them once they were free-floating and wouldn’t try to get anymore out once they had plenty to play with.  They did play with them a little bit, but the thrill of the active process of removal proved more reinforcing.  We tried reinforcing them outside of session when they weren’t messing around under the docks.  It didn’t work.  In fact, I remember one time I went down to the water’s edge and most of the dolphins came over for rubs outside of session.  It was going really well and I thought, “Hey, this is the ticket to extinguishing this frustrating behavior!”  And in the middle of me patting myself on my back, Chopper and Cosmo both started their Float Removal Routine.  I got up to leave, and they didn’t even notice.

Where you going? Haha just kidding,  I don't care!

We took as many floats out as we could and still be able to easily move around on the docks without lots of balance checks.  And then we started stuffing the impromptu dolphin toys in different ways that we thought would be impossible for a dolphin to dislodge.

That worked for a few days.  Once in a while, one of the dolphins would try to get a float out by him or herself to no avail.  They’d give up after a while, and we thought we had the problem solved.

Sigh.  The dolphins learned to work together, and so the floats started popping out again.  We went back to the drawing board, drew on any physics knowledge anyone on the staff had, and found a winning (well, at least as I write this) manner in which to place the objects that were impervious to even a four-dolphin cooperative removal effort.

But what did this to?  Oh, this made the Floating Dock Bank of Dolphindom return to the forefront of Chopper’s gigantic brain.  

“OH YEAH!” he seemed to think.  “I remember having fun with this months ago!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Someone smarter than me please make this meme with Chopper's face in it

We had a very, very cold wind come through a couple of weeks ago.  Eight degrees (definitely far too few degrees if you ask me, especially for FLORIDA for crying out loud) and gusts over 30mph.  When we came in the next day, we noticed some palm frond debris floating in the dolphin habitat.  Not only was it floating on the surface, it had collected in some places under the docks.  I spent a good amount of time fishing the stuff out from under there with any tool I could find, Chopper watching intently.  

That moment seemed to fully re-ignite Chopper’s zeal for hiding toys.  I mean, I can understand it.  First, it is a great fun to watch humans futz around to get the stuff out.  Second, most of the time humans don’t even REALIZE they toys are UNDER there, because as all dolphins know humans lack object permanence despite seeming like they have a high level of intelligence that approaches that of an octopus.

A few days ago, the dolphins had a great session and we decided to put a buttload of toys in for them.  They had these square mats they go crazy for, they had jolly balls and kongs and soccer/footballs.  Every dolphin was playing with everything, for two hours they played nonstop with these things.  And then the 2:00 show rolled around and we all went down onto the docks and collected our respective dolphin.  I took Chopper that show, and he brought over a mouthful of mats and balls.  I laughed, impressed with his Teacher’s Pet attitude.

Ohhhh oh oh oh!!! OHHHHH ME!!

So the show started, and I was having a great time trying to teach Chopper to throw toys into a one of our toy baskets.  He seems to get really jazzed with that behavior, so I was using it for reinforcement for some of his other more important things.

“Hey Cat,” one of our trainers said.  “Do you see the orange noodle anywhere?”

I looked around the habitat quickly and couldn’t see it.  

“Are you sure it was in here?” I asked.
“Yes, positive,” the trainer said.

The orange noodle is a huge, unswallowable noodle that’s made out of the same stuff lifeguard floats are made of, and they are a big hit with three of our dolphins.  They hadn’t seen it in a while, so I immediately knew where it was.

Under the docks.

It had to be.  It was a toy that when we first introduced it, some of the dolphins ripped out of our hands and refused to give it back.  Once we got through that issue, we had some really great training accomplished using just that particular noodle as reinforcement.  We hadn’t had it in rotation for a few weeks, so it made sense to me that someone may have wanted to save it for later.  I’d already experienced Chopper seeing us get ready to do a session and quickly hide all of his toys, so I knew that this was a likely possibility.

Fun for water-loving mammals of all species!

I gave Chopper the retrieval SD.  I pointed under the docks, but he instead went to one of the last toys out in visible range and brought it back to me.  I asked again, pointing under the dock.  He disappeared, and this is what I heard:

Rumble.  Rumble.  Squeaaaakkkkkkk.   BumpBUMP.  Squeaaaak. BUMP.

Chopper returned to me, his mouth closed and eyes wide, sans noodle.

Hmmm, I thought naively.  Maybe he is having trouble getting it out from under there.**  I asked him again.  He again promptly went back to the same location.  Again I heard and felt thudding in one location, and again he returned to me empty-handed.

We had to move on to other behaviors for the show, but now Chopper was on red-alert.  His beloved toy was in danger of being discovered.  All of a sudden, for no obvious reason, he’d leave station with me and disappear under the docks.  I’d hear the thudding again, and then he’d come back to me.  When I offered tactile reinforcement, he’d run his body along my hands like he usually does, except he’d again disappear under the docks.

We eventually asked Lily, our youngest female, to retrieve the noodle.  She quickly swam to where Chopper had been intently checking and brought back...

...a floating mat.

“Whhhaaaaaa??” I said. The other trainers knew we were short one mat and one noodle, but I’d only heard about the noodle.  So I asked Lily’s trainer to send her again to finish the job, but she refused to go under there.

The show ended, and one of the trainers ran downstairs to look up under the docks to see if I’d lost my mind.  Sure enough, the noodle was exactly where I thought it was; right where Chopper had essentially told me.  


So we did another training session (as we normally do; we usually have an in-water program right after our show, but we’ve been so slow we haven’t had it so we just do a long training session).  I took Chopper, stuffed toys under the docks, asked him to retrieve them (he did) and reinforced him for it.  But he still would. not. get. the. noodle.  

We eventually send good ol’ reliable Cosmo, who pulled the noodle out from under the docks in about 0.032 seconds.  Chopper watched him the entire time, from retrieval to bringing it back to his trainer.  A part of me felt bad for little Chop; his buddy had just betrayed his clever hiding spot.  I took the noodle from Cosmo’s trainer, wedged it under the docks again, and asked Chopper to get it.  He got it for me no problem, and I reinforced him for that.

I hate to say that Chopper “lied” to me about the noodle not being there...because that’s a pretty big stretch for me to assert.  And certainly I don’t think there was any malicious intent on the part of that cute little dolphin, but c’mon.  Certainly there was some mischief happening....and the best kind of mischief: the smart kind.   Was this situation akin to when a human child decides to hide something from his parents, thinking he is being so incredibly clandestine and clever while his parents are aware of every facet of his cunning plan?  It surely felt that way to me.  I can’t write a peer-reviewed paper on it, so this anecdote will have to suffice.  And I will continue to appreciate and find myself in awe of the decisions, no matter how familiar or foreign, the animals with whom I share my life make.  It is something none of us, animal trainer/keeper/caretaker should ever take for granted.  It is not something any of us should fear, or stuff under a facade of “professionalism.”  It is something to celebrate, debate, and share.  Don’t stuff it under a dock!


* Environmental Enrichment Devices, which I submit we should start calling all children toys because really, what is the difference between a baby dolphin/elephant/human (other than amount of poop produced per hour)?

**Yeah right, he can pull out a ten pound float wedged into place from under there but not a floaty, squishy noodle?  Oh, the lies we tell ourselves.

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