Sunday, August 23, 2015

Animal Training Is Easy; Talking To Other Humans Is Impossible

I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between humans and All Other Animals, lately.

Look at how well I communicate!

If you’ve been following this blog for any substantial length of time, you know my personal opinion on the ever-narrowing fissure between humans and their other animal counterparts.  I don’t need to rehash those opinions here, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about how non-human animals think and experience the world.  

Even though I think a brain is a brain is a brain, I do realize that there are some things that differentiate humans from other species of animals.  And one of those things is how we communicate.  Rather, how we (the people)* respond to miscommunication.

Just don't try to eat 50 eggs.

As animal trainers, our entire world is set firmly on a foundation of interspecies communication, which is like so awesome it makes me smile every time I think about it.  Any good trainer knows that strongly conditioned, predictable guidelines are what make cooperation between the species.  Equally importantly is the relationship between all individuals: the better the rapport, the more easily we understand each other.

So far, everything in the last paragraph can be said for humans.  We learn a language(s), cultural expectations, and use these tools to express ourselves and encourage cooperation between our conspecifics.  Who can argue that the people closest to us are the ones who “get” us, often without minimal language required?  I swear that one of my best friends can access my brain in a totally, uncreepy but definitely hacker-y way.  She’s like my very own Professor X.


And in all animal species, there are misunderstandings.  When that happens, we learn a lot... that is, if we are patient, humble, and willing to learn.  This strengthens our relationships with each other no matter the species.  So far, we’re not really detecting any differences, right?**

Animal trainers are communication experts, with a special, hidden expertise in miscommunication. What happens when there is a misunderstanding between animal and human trainer?  I mean actually in the moment, not all of the training methods we use to re-establish whatever got screwed up.  

Usually it’s like, a dolphin jumps instead of breaches.  A sea lion emits an A-B randomly in the middle of a show.  A penguin incorrectly anticipates a blood draw and decides to take a little of yours instead (oh, penguins).  Most of the time, these misunderstandings are no big deal.  There’s almost no embarrassment, and usually little lasting or serious effects.

No big deal!

But no matter how big or small the communication fail is, animal trainers do a fantastic job of assessing the situation, then applying artfully precise tactics that alleviate confusion, correct the problem and make human and animal happy and confident.  This can happen in mere seconds, or over a longer period of time.  Nonetheless, it’s a delicate but powerful balance of objective observation, application of consistent rules, and relationship that bring us all back to harmony.

Ah, this is where humans differ from animals.  Because comparatively, humans really suck at communication.

If you don’t believe me, just walk into any bookstore and head to the self-help section.  Look at the tomes of information on how to talk to each other.  Comedians create entire sets on stupid things they’ve said or heard.  Think about your own experiences with this ("Wow, when are you due?" "I'm not pregnant.") With all the words we have at our disposal to talk to each other, we humans use them more to create facepalm moments than we do to foster perfectly gelled communication. 

Take luck!

Despite my ability to talk incessantly for hours, all of that practice has not made me a better communicator to my conspecifics.  I have so many examples of this, but one such a time happened to me at work that perfectly illustrates the subject of this blog.

We had a really, really stormy day.  Lightning was striking very close and frequently, which as we all know is ridiculously dangerous if you work outside.  It was a weekend day, and I happened to be the ranking animal training person there because the director and the general manager were off.  Days like that (Running With Scissors Days!) are usually awesome, but when something goes wrong they are a little stressful in a good way.  Growing pains and all that.

That day, some of the animals were acting spooked by the strong winds and loud thunder (we have harbor seals and ASCOs***, need I say more?).  But the animal trainer in me was able to usher all animal subjects through their fear, relying on our communication fundamentals and relationship, without anyone losing their minds.  I felt confident.  I felt like we could handle this insane storm without any critter being too stressed out.

Everything's cool, man!

But then came the time where I had to make a decision about how we’d manage the humans in the storm.  Because of the obvious safety concerns, I decided to delay a show until the weather was better.  Yeah, it meant the animals’ schedule would be different; it also meant that they’d have back-to-back sessions.  But we as a staff felt totally confident in our ability to make the situation fun and exciting for the animals.  Again, it all came down to how comfortable we were with how we communicated with them.

Telling guests that a show was delayed, or that their program had to be rescheduled is usually when my confidence evaporates.  In this case, the few guests who were in the park totally understood and had no interest in being electrocuted (so we all had something in common).  No guest seemed unhappy, but all of them decided to leave for the day and come back later when the weather was nicer.

It was at this point that I escorted one family to our gift shop so they could reschedule their interaction program.  Once completed, they left with smiles on their faces and told us to be careful in the weather.  I waved back at them and wished them well, feeling better than ever in my supervisory role.  I could get the hang of this! I could sail these tricky waters!

Whatever you say, your royal Cuteness.

Then I turned around and this is what I thought I said:

Me: Alright!!  Well, I don’t think there’s anyone in the park right now.  But if anyone comes in while it’s still storming like this, just make sure they know the sea lion show is delayed until the weather lets up.  I’ll let you guys know ASAP as soon as we will be ready to start the show.
Awesome gift shop staff: You got it!

But what happened was my newly-confident brain in the midst of normal, professional growing pain stress completely screwed up my ability to speak what was actually in my head.  I don’t know exactly what I said, but it basically amounted to this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet

Awesome gift shop staff: Um...okay. You got it!

I went off on my merry way to monitor the storm and make sure everyone was doing well, thinking I’d really nailed this managerial task and covered all my bases.  I updated the Aquarist curator about what was going on, with his approval.  As the storm raged on, we did what we could without sacrificing safety.  We spent a lot of time inside, crammed around a radar screen waiting for the brief oases where we could feed the animals.

My confidence came to a sudden, surprising end when, hours later, the aquarist curator approached me with a pained and confused look on his face.


Curator: Cat, did you know the park was closed?
Me: Um, what?
Yeah.  Did you tell the gift shop to close the park because of severe weather?
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet

My brain exploded.  Had I said that?? Did I say anything that kind of said that?  I adore all the people in the gift shop, and there’s no way they’d ever make that call or blame it on me.  The only explanation was that I’d said something that was interpreted to mean SHUT THOSE DOORS.  And they dutifully did so. 

But oh my goddddd.  I was so embarrassed.  Not only did I clearly miscommunicate, but  I couldn’t even figure out HOW I did that, even though I knew it was my fault.  This is of course on top of the total internal panic that raged within me as I thought about how I’d royally screwed up one of my only opportunities to be the Big Boss while the real bosses were away.

General Manager: So how did Cat do on her own?
Boss: Oh, fine.  Except she closed the entire park down for hours.


Luckily, thanks to the the time of year and the storm, we didn’t have any guests bashing in our doors trying to gain entrance.  We didn’t really lose any revenue, so my miscommunication didn’t have any big consequences other than making me feel about 18 inches tall.  To date, like any good animal trainer, I still attempt to figure out what I did wrong.  But because this was strictly a humans-only scenario, I know I’ll never figure it out.

Even though I can’t wax poetic with a dolphin, it’s still really awesome to think that I have a purer method of communicating with non-human animals than I do people.  But really, it’s all fun no matter what species you’re talking to.  And as long as I choose to converse with other humans, I’ll have to accept my awkwardness...and laugh heartily at it when the time is right. 

Communication is hard.


* This sounds familiar....

** I mean, other than the fact that I still haven’t learned to speak Harbor Seal yet.

*** If you are unfamiliar with this acronym, it is commonly used in the zoo industry and is short for “Absolutely Super Crazy Otters” which zoologists occasionally refer to as Asian-small clawed otters.

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