There's been a lot going on the past few days in our world, hasn't there?
|Well, the biggest news in these girls' worlds involves deciding whether or not to play with the frisbee or the buoy first.|
For any of you who don't know to what I'm referring, let's just say there's a video zooming around cyberspace that shows dolphin trainers at a particular facility (not in the U.S.) yelling at, hitting, and kicking dolphins. I'm not going to post a link to this video, because I don't want to poison this blog with images like that. Just like I don't want to post a photo of someone beating their dog, or hurting a horse, or any other animal; you can do your own research if you want to see it that badly, but it has no place here.
This video has brought out a lot of emotions, a lot of speculation, and a lot of confusion. It is one of those rare times when marine mammal trainers and extremist animal rights activists are yelling from the same side. Understandably, the rest of us in the field who were not depicted in this video want to make sure that the world knows, "Uh, THAT is not how we treat the animals under our care!!!!!!!!!!" We want to shout it from the rooftops: this video shows deplorable behavior that has no justification, and it certainly has no place in our industry (not to mention the fact it has no place AT ALL in ANY context with any animal, humans included)!!
So here's the thing, though. The current maelstrom sweeping through certain media outlets and many of our own heads has a lot of details that most of us are clueless about. Speculation is a normal human tendency, but that isn't the point of this blog.
|All you need is love!|
What's the point? It's simple: the one fact we can all hang our whistles on is that none of us would ever even consider terrorizing (verbally or physically) the animals we know and love. How about the fact that every single REAL animal trainer watched that video in utter shock and disgust?
What is a REAL trainer? Well, that's all of us who would never, ever hit an animal or terrorize them. Us? We're the 99.9% of the animal training field. That 99.9% of animal trainers saw that video going, "....what? How can this be real? Is that real? Am I really seeing this?"
In this situation, it's immensely important that we focus our emotions and efforts on the most productive, helpful things. And you know what? There have been a few things that happened right when this situation went viral that gave us that focus, and something to be really proud of.
First, IMATA did us 99.9% all a solid. They swiftly published a statement that didn't incite witch-huntery (as satisfying as that is in an emotionally-charged moment...we all are better human beings than that), but condemned the actions of the people in the video. If you haven't read the statement yet, here it is:
On February 4, 2015, IMATA’s Board was made aware of a video that appears to show an individual or individuals yelling at, striking, and kicking dolphins. That video was brought to our attention by some of our members who expressed concern over what the video seems to depict. IMATA takes these concerns very seriously. We have yet to verify who the individuals are in the video nor been able to ascertain precisely what is taking place. However, we agree that the video is alarming and seems to indicate a trainer (or trainers) using unacceptable techniques. Once we confirm the identity of the individuals in this video and have looked into the situation thoroughly, if the evidence supports what clearly appears to be inappropriate and unacceptable interactions with dolphins – that individual would not be able to remain or ever become an IMATA member. IMATA is committed to exceptional animal care that has its basis in positive reinforcement training and we do not ever condone the use of punishment and reprimands that seem to be in use in that video.
This statement made me so proud to be an IMATA member. Not only are they standing up for us (including the people who make up the IMATA board) and what we stand for as a community and profession, they make it clear the repercussions for anyone who is proven to violate a most basic, crucial concept: we don't abuse our animals! On top of that, there is no speculation, which is what gives me focus in a time when I feel really angry, upset, and ready to just rip my hair out (and/or eat my feelings). IMATA stepped up as a leading voice in our incredible field and gave us something to rally around.
|Thank you, IMATA!|
On a quick tangent, let's remember the first part of IMATA's mission statement: "Train animals emphasizing positive reinforcement to ensure humane care." Emphasizing positive reinforcement translates to relying heavily on it.
Let's also remember that IMATA accredits facilities specifically focusing on HOW the facility trains not only the animals, but the TRAINERS as well. They have an entire, stringent process for accrediting facilities on these notes, with the strong undercurrent of, d'uh, positive reinforcement training and ZERO methods of terrorizing an animal via physical punishment (verbal or physical).
Second, a few members of the training community stepped forward on Facebook and urged trainers to share how they care for and interact with their animal families. Someone posted an awesome video of their training team playing with pinnipeds, another person had an adorable video of a trainer giving the best belly rub ever to a very appreciative California sea lion (seriously, I was so jealous!!!), and still another very prominent leader in our field publicly urged all of us to, again, focus our efforts on what the 99.9% of us do EVERY day: LOVE our animals and SHARE that connection with the world.
|Working on the little dude's breach height! Yeah, yeah, I'm dressed as a pirate. So what?|
These two positive actions realigned my priorities. Like all of you 99.9 percenters, I watched the dolphins in that video and thought, "Oh my god, what is going through those poor animals heads?! They are supposed to look at their trainers with trust and confidence. These people have not only physically hurt them, but have let them down in a way that has incalculable damage." I felt enraged; what if people actually think this is what's going on behind the scenes at the rest of our facilities?!?! This is just awful no matter how you slice it!!
But thanks to IMATA and some really wise people in our field, those thoughts were quieted by some other ones. Here are some of them that just came into my mind today:
1. When I walked by the dolphin habitat with no fish in hand, all five animals came up to me and just stared at me. And I stared back at their soulful brown eyes, and then proceeded to do what I always do, which is to talk to them and tell them how great they are and then see if they wanted to play. During our shows and other training sessions today, I watched my entire staff interact with the dolphins; all parties playing, vocalizing, and having a great time. This is how it is, not just at my facility, but at the vast majority of places. This is how it SHOULD be; and this is how it IS.
|Not pictured: this guy's favorite soccer ball just before it was tossed out.|
2. I had a couple of sessions with our young sea lion pups, who are still learning all the basics. And guess what, like any little kid, these sea lion pups do not do what they are asked to do most of the time. No matter how n-a-u-g-h-t-y the little guys were (oh you know, like today the smallest one just had to follow us out of the habitat into a lockout hallway to inspect a hose, or the quietest one took a field trip to explore some bubbles), never once did I feel frustrated with the animals themselves. In fact, all I could think about was me: what could I do better to make this session more fun? That made me realize that us 99.9% trainers may feel frustrated with OURSELVES, but not the animals for whom we care. Not to mention, we know these animals are not little computer programs; we are not here to demand compliance. We are here to teach, to guide, and to learn. And the animals can choose to participate; it's our job to make sure they are always free to say no without a scary or uncomfortable consequence.
|I can't get enough of these guys (and their adorable molting). #sorrynotsorry|
3. I am a part of an incredible community filled with large-hearted people and strong leadership like IMATA, individual trainers who took the stand to show how most of us (yup, you guessed it, the 99.9%!) do our "job" (or life's work, really) every single day. We don't have to worry about people video-taping a behind-the-scenes session and "revealing" something bad...because none of us would ever do anything like that. We are rallying together to say, "Hang on a second, this stuff is CRAZY! We could never do that, what is going on here?!", but also to say, "We love and respect these animals, no matter what random 0.1% tiny minority does."
|Sometimes I like to snuggle with this amazing penguin...because she is awesome.|
Not that I'm in a position to give advice, but here's a thought to you fellow 99.9 percenters: just keep doing what you're doing. Keep smiling, laughing, talking to and encouraging your animals. Do they understand what you're saying? Who knows. But they feed off of that positive energy.
Continue holding your training program to the highest, most fair and predictable standard, obviously keeping it firmly rooted in positive reinforcement and CHOICE. We all have different methods, different animals as individuals and as groups and therefore different training techniques that still encourage confidence, celebrate success, and create a safe place to mess up and learn from mess-ups. But we all should just keep focus on continuing that good work and putting the animals first.
Yes, we are outraged at what we saw on that video. But that is NOT how WE do things. And so we will go to work today and strive to be the best trainer and caretaker we can, learn as much as we can from the animals in our care, and connect with our guests. We know "our" animals (of course, they are not really "ours") will never look to us 99.9% trainers in fear, but with trust. And that is evident without me having to write this blog.