I love guest blogs. Reading insight and personal experience from other people is so much fun and one of the best parts of being in this field.
So why James as a guest author? Well, let me tell you. This guy clearly loves his job and does it well. Not just because it's a cool job; you can tell he puts a lot into the animals for whom he cares. Anytime I see a work-related post from James, it's something to showcase how awesome one of the animals is or one of the recent training successes he or she has had. It seemed silly not to ask someone who has worked with so many different animals, who's been in the field a while, AND who clearly still is passionate about the work he does to write a Middle Flipper. I'm honored to have him write something for all of you.
But don't let me convince you. There is a lot of wisdom in the blog below (and a lot of great stories). Enjoy!
Wow! An opportunity to be a guest author on the incredibly popular "Middle Flipper"! When Cat contacted me and asked if I wanted to contribute I immediately began brainstorming potential topics to discuss. We work in such a dynamic field, it felt impossible to pick just one! It could be an aspect of training a stubborn animal, or discussing the most effective animal presentation formats, or even the challenges of working on a team. That's when it hit me...communication! To be truly successful at our jobs we must be outstanding communicators! This is true from training a new behavior to creating a memorable experience for our guests. Luckily, getting an animal trainer to shut their mouth is more of a challenge than getting them to open up about their job.
During my time working in zoos and aquariums I have learned the importance of efficient and clear communication with animals AND humans and I know I am far from done improving at it.
The ups and downs we experience as animal trainers are important to our own professional development, but also serve as a unique way to engage our visitors and leave them with a greater message than to simply, "be green".
So let’s jump on in!
I have been incredibly fortunate to work with a number of different species ranging from African elephants to bottlenose dolphins to domesticated geese (strangely one of my favorites) and have observed firsthand the success of positive reinforcement training incorporated into their care. When I was given the opportunity to work with a 36 year-old white rhino named George I set out to train him the "simple" behavior of targeting to a buoy. I could not have imagined the battle that lay ahead of me. This was an older animal with poor vision, who had never before gone through a formal training program. He was the exact opposite of the dolphins and sea lions I was accustomed to. George was slow... this was true from every movement he made down to the speed of training progression. For three months I worked to condition him to a bridge, find food items that he found reinforcing, and convince him that a target pole was NOT a weapon of mass destruction.
I remember it like it was yesterday...the sun was out, the guests were enjoying the animals, the poop had been scooped, and I had a good feeling about my session. I placed the target pole through the training fence and George slowly but surely brought his drooling square muzzle to the buoy. I was ecstatic! What do dolphin trainers do when their animal makes a major breakthrough? We cheer and jackpot them with all their food, right?
This rhino didn't appreciate that. When I tossed George's bucket of apples, bananas, and carrots to him and stood to cheer for him his eyes became wider than I had ever seen and he took off running. Instead of making it the most reinforcing scenario possible, I had managed to scare the daylights out of him and set my progress back three more months. The lesson in all of this was I needed to know the animal that I was working with on a much deeper level; beyond applying the rules of operant conditioning.
Thankfully, George did give me a second chance, and I learned that he appreciated slow, deliberate movements from his trainers with no sudden "surprises". George now works confidently with a number of different trainers and takes part in an educational guest encounter program where he targets like a CHAMP.
The Many Faces of Hudson
Recently, harbor seals were the topic of the Middle Flipper. They are truly unique and challenging animals to work with. I often compare them to the character of Sheldon Cooper on the TV show "Big Bang Theory". They are incredibly intelligent but completely unaware of how to act in a social situation no matter how many times they take part in them. They can come off as cold and rude but at the end of the day, you still find yourself enjoying their company and keep coming back for more.
Hudson was a young male harbor seal that I was tasked with as his primary trainer. It was my first time training with harbor seals and I had a difficult time interpreting those wide alert eyes as they scanned the exhibit, attempting to locate even the faintest noise that was surely a sign of a quickly approaching polar bear. Looking back at my time with him, I believe it took approximately one year to really get to know him and understand the many faces of Hudson. Hudson was (and still is) a very intelligent young animal who can learn a behavior relatively quickly; but like all gifted youngsters, he can lack motivation. Our training team soon had many different personifications for Hudson to help describe his behavior during any given session. Bear with me…these all make perfect sense in my head.
There was "Mudson" who lacked all motivation and either wanted to just sit on land (especially during molt) or stare at you from the waterfall. "Hudson-do-good" was a "Leave it to Beaver" style, innocent kid who tried his best even if he didn't succeed. "Bloodson" was a jumpy, grabby, skittish seal; and, most recently came "Studson," who was far more interested in the lovely female seals that he shares his pool with than his training session.
Corny? Incredibly. But most importantly they were a way to take a lighthearted approach to working with a challenging animal, ensuring that frustration never got the best of us. It was important to look at all the factors that would play a role in his behavior during a session and how to best set him and his trainer up for success.
Sharing IS Caring!
No matter what your title is; animal trainer, zoo keeper, vet tech, intern, etc., we are all communicators. To me that's our biggest role as animal care takers and educators. If a guest leaves a facility without greater knowledge of animal behavior or a better understanding of how to preserve the natural world, we have not done our job. Don't let the fact that it is our job make you forget to have fun with it though! I always enjoy speaking with guests about my successes and failures with training to help build that personal connection between them and the animals. Sharing the experiences described above and many others like it are great way to leave a lasting impression on someone who walks away knowing a little more about an individual seal or rhino, and in return feels a closer and more personal connection to an entire species.
I'd like to give a big thank you to Cat for letting me post my ramblings and embarrassing stories. I love working in this field because it is made up of passionate individuals who never cease in their drive to share experiences and learn from one another.
James "Jim" Weinpress graduated with a degree is psychology and has been working in the animal care field since 2008. James has worked with an array of animal species including bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, grizzly & polar bears, and African elephants. James is an active member of IMATA and AAZK and currently resides in Rochester, New York.