Sunday, January 31, 2016

Moving and Migrating, The Key To Happiness?

I’ve had a lot of time to think about things the past couple of days.  That’s what happens when you’re in a car for a really long period of time with a sleeping baby in the back seat.   I thought about Atlanta traffic, which I was able to experience in all its Friday night glory, and concluded that it is undoubtedly a scourge sent to us from some ancient supernatural force that suffers all mortals without discrimination. 

I should've just rapped about it.

I also had some time to think about moving and what that does to a person.  I mean, it’s stressful right? It complete upends the most basic sense of security; your physical home and social network.  It really messes with your mind. Like I only ate one donut from my favorite donut place, because I was so high-strung.  But then I realized that's just how I react to this major life event*.  Some people live for that kind of change.  What is it about moving that makes so many of us stressed out, and others feel recharged and excited?

I’m no anthropologist, nor am I a philosopher.  But it makes me think about some of the things we as animal lovers talk about when we talk about animals.  One of the main arguments made against having animals in zoos or aquariums has to do with the amount of space they have in human care versus what they would theoretically have in the wild.  In my experience, the question usually revolves around bottlenose dolphins and if they have to swim hundreds of miles a day to thrive.

(Let me also just say that there absolutely ARE animal species whose life depends on the ability to move large distances.  This is just about bottlenose dolphins. )

Like anything, there are no solid answers to general questions.  As a field, we collectively strive to provide the best care for our animal family members, which means signing up for a constant evolution and admitting that there will always be necessary change we have to answer to in practice, not just in theory.  But when we start to debate the need for animals in general to move around, both sides of the argument tend to work in sweeping statements (always coming from a place of compassion, of course).

I may not be a philosopher, but I appreciate a deep thought when I see one.

So often, I’ve heard myself answering a tough question about “is this enough space for a dolphin to swim in?” with some comparison to myself. I mean this as a show of sincere sign of connection to the animals as individuals and to their well-being.  That might be a flaw of mine; I tend to assume that the person asking me the question already thinks I’m a jerk for being a marine mammal trainer.  I know that’s an unfair assumption to make, because there are people who just ask because they are curious. But I’m sensitive to those kinds of questions…not because they aren’t valid ones to ask, but because I never know if we’re talking about the topic at hand, or if it’s going to turn into some mudslinging session.

Right, so when I’m asked about if dolphins have enough space considering the vastness of their natural habitat, I usually talk about how coastal bottlenose dolphins tend to stay wherever the food is; they only travel large distances if they have to.  Otherwise, they seem to prefer to stay within a home range.  And then I compare that to myself, saying if there’s deep dish pizza in my neighborhood, you can pretty much bet I’ll stay in one spot.

Homing beacon activated

I’ve heard other answers, like it doesn’t really “matter” how much space the animals have, as long as they are well taken care of.   I’ve heard things like, “there is no research to support that they need a certain amount of space”. 

Those are answers in response to questions or statements like, “dolphins normally travel hundreds or thousands of miles a day, and now they swim in endless tiny loops” and “how can they be happy in this small tank?”

Well this is just a huge mess

Some of you might be nodding your heads in agreement, while others of you are bristling.  This is one of those classic Us Against Them scenarios.  But does it have to be that way?

I was thinking on the first long leg of my moving journey about what it means to be an animal who tends to seek out a territory and set down roots.  We get jobs, we rent or buy a house, we start families (including our non-human babies!), and get involved with our community to varying degrees.  We travel to select places, usually to meet some core need.  For me, that was: work and burritos (I had the deep dish pizza delivered).  And sometimes, we travel for pleasure, only to come right back to our cozy 900 square foot homes.

Do people with giant estates, or the ability to travel a lot more, have better lives than those of us living in small places who basically stay within a 10 mile radius?  In general, no.  It’s just different.  

OVER DONE John Fogarty! For serious.

But that’s not really the whole story to how humans as a species live.  Yes, many of us can culturally relate to what I’ve just written.  That’s how we were raised (although some of us still choose to live a wanderlust life).  But there are many cultures of humans who do or did roam vast distances.  Nomadic and migratory peoples would take a lot of adjusting to live a life that most of us know as “normal”….just as it would be a massive shock to our lives to never have a rooted-down home. 

Despite humans being all one species, we have many different cultures.  And in terms of bottlenose dolphins, we share that in common.  There are currently two species of bottlenose dolphins, the common and the Indo-Pacific.  The common is further split into sub-species, but even within those sub-species we see very different cultural differences in populations.  Some stick to a home-range, some travel large distances, some dive to great depths for food while others specialize in hunting prey in inches of water.

Why you so complicated, sea mammal?

The point is, we can’t easily say that dolphins need to move, or that they don’t need to move.  We have to understand their natural history, not just as a species as a whole, but as a population.  As a culture.  And lastly (but not least importantly), as an individual.  It’s just as unfair to say that dolphins need hundreds of miles to swim in order to be happy as it is to say that they unequivocally don’t need it.  Would a dolphin who is born in human care live a better life in a larger, more naturalistic habitat?  I can’t even hazard a guess unless I know the animal well, but I think any animal care professional would emphatically vote YES for any habitat upgrades as long as it was the right fit for the animals in question.

Which brings me to the last point, which is that not all animals are eager to just move into a new place.  This is a point of contention when it comes to zoo professionals themselves, and not just with the animal rights extremists.  While we all would want the most naturalistic, gigantic habitat for our animal friends, we still have to consider what steps that requires in order to ensure the animals themselves benefit from it.  I know a few dolphins who would freak out if they were plopped into any habitat other than the ones they know; that's just who they are.   It's not as simple as just building a better habitat and BOOM everybody's happier.

Don't we all, Garth?

But that can't be an excuse for us in the field, either. Saying the dolphins need to travel hundreds of miles may be true for some, but not all. But just because the animals in our care may be doing well in their current habitats doesn’t mean we as zoological professionals should sit on our laurels.  It has to constantly be an assessment; what is really best for the animals?  Keeping that question as the pinnacle around which all our other decisions are made is what we are and should be about in our profession.  There are no simple answers, even though we feel like we need to answer a critical question with one.  The complicated nature of living alongside of animals pushes us to always change, to ask questions, to be critical of ourselves, and to acknowledge all facets of an animal's needs both as an individual and within a population.

Personally, I’m ready to root down and live in a small apartment and have a simple life.  That’s just me; that’s not me speaking for the entire human race.  And now, I take off my philosopher's hat so that I can combat the next leg of my journey, which will likely involve a lot of Red Bull and excitement about the next chapter!

*Even though this move is a) for an awesome opportunity and b) will undoubtedly put me into the loving arms of many donut bakeries

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Budding Writer

I don't know whether you're going to love or hate me after this blog post, but I'm taking a risk showing you guys this and I hope you'll be gentle.

I've always enjoyed the act of creation in multiple media, whether the written word, fine art, baking, or a massively imaginative world of terrific anxiety where everything goes terribly wrong and I wind up spending hours staring at WebMD or some related resource wondering if one of my pupils is larger than the other.


I love writing this blog.  I love writing, I love sharing, and I love that many of you love it.  I'm starting to get asked questions by people I don't know about my inspiration for each weekly topic, or "have I always been a writer", things like that.  It's very flattering and humbling to receive your encouraging words and questions.  If you've wondered from whence my inspiration springs, I'll show you in this very entry.

Lucky you, because I'm moving I have found all kinds of things stuffed around this place.  I'm doing that KonMari method of tidying up and it's changing my life.  It also put me into close contact with things I completely forgot I had, such as manuals to electrical equipment I've never owned and really blurry photos of landscapes with my 8th grade hand-writing on it with profoundly written captions such as "Liquid Grace" (hint: it's a picture of a waterfall.  Brilliant.).

But then I found a treasure trove of my earliest prose.  I read each piece, mesmerized by how little I've changed in both how I write, and how I choose the topic.  It was a very enlightening experience which has led me to a very important conclusion that I feel must be immediately published in this format so that you all know me a little better.  I've tried framing this conclusive thought into a declarative sentence, but it stubbornly remains only a question.  After toiling over it, re-phrasing it, and pondering its significance in my life and how it reaches my amazing audience via this blog, I've decided to share it with you in its unpolished - but finished- glory:

Was I, at any point in life, dropped on my head?

I'll let you be the judge now, as we take a trip back in time to the first work I'm sharing with all of you: My Official Autobiography.  (Note: all captions are sic and also I was like 7 when I wrote this, so...)

"MY LIFE by; Catherine Rust.  Chapter 1  The Hospital
In 1984 I was born.  I can't quite rember every thing.
I was very big.  My mom couldn't beilve how big I was."
We open with this compelling scene.  Not only are we moved by the actual occasion of my birth, but I very artistically mention using brilliant literary devices that my memory is so good, I remembered some (but not all) of my birth.  I clearly didn't want the reader to feel separated from me by jealousy of my tremendous, congenital intellectual capacity, so I went the humble route by suggesting that, by seven years old, I'd forgotten some of the events in my first hours.  

I'd also like to point out that I illustrated this volume. I think I really captured my mother's exhaustion in her eyes.

"I looked funny when the nurse held me.  She was nice.  She gave me a bath.
then gave me to my mom.
I'll name her Catherine! Her nick names will be Cat, Kitty, and Kitten.
No Cathy! I don't think she'll like that.' said my mom Sandra Ann VanGilder.
I had thick hair!"

This is a pretty self-explanatory page. You now know all of my nicknames.  You are aware of my masterful rhetoric as I weave compelling dialogue with blunt physical descriptions.  The only questions I have my for myself involve the illustration here, including if that nurse ever learned how to hold a newborn baby.  I do approve of the very chic claw-footed bathtub I'm sure was standard issue in hospitals at the time.

"Splash! Splash! Splash!
I was having so much fun!
Then the bad part, my shot!
The nurse got it ready.
'Ouch!' said my mom.
Points to note: see how, even though I was hours old, I could sit up on my own? A sign of a genius, if you ask me.

Also, CAN WE JUST TAKE A MOMENT TO SHUDDER IN HORROR AT THE SIZE OF THE SHOT.  What in my little brain inspired me to draw a 100cc syringe attached to like what, a 2 gauge needle?  I actually remember drawing this, because I had no clue where nurses got the stuff that goes IN the shot, so I came up with the best medical contraption I could.  Note its sleek and modern design.  It's apparently also powered by electricity, unless those curly cords are just for show.

There is also another shot waiting on the far left, or maybe that's a shish kebab for later.

"My dad came.  His name is David Anothony Rust.  He went to work to tell
people the good news.  He asked for a pair of shoes that said Kristine!
He showed them to my mom.  She said, 'Dave! This is Cathereine! Not Kristine!'
'Oh man!' said my dad and went back.
The plot thickens.  I merely graze over what was a major moment of marital tension; my dad spacing out on my name.  True story.  He ordered a pair of personalized shoes for me that said "Christine", brought them to the hospital only to realize the mistake.  After further inquiry, all parties involved could not argue with evidence presented by the company who made the shoes: an order form with "Christine" written in my dad's characteristic handwriting.

At this point in the story, our hero is now sitting up on the floor and my mom is in some kind of bed that defies the laws of physics.  It was a pretty fancy hospital. Check out the hot pink sheets!

"Chapter 2  The Car
'Time to go!' said my mom.  'We don't have a car seat.'
'I'll get one at Kohls.' said my dad.  And he did."
Ah, the first product placement.  I've avoided that on my blog, because I want this to remain something I do for free and for fun.  But in my younger years, I found it necessary to subtly place my favorite stores and brands in my work.  

I'd also like to retract my notion that my parents were unprepared for my birth.  They did in fact, bring a car seat to the hospital.  The start of this chapter insinuating otherwise was merely my artistic decision to alter the facts in order to make a more compelling story: Child genius defies odds in spite of parents not remembering her name and not having the appropriate safety gear for the car.  

To any team members at Kohls: feel free to use my window display design of car seats as depicted in the above image.

'Ah! Here is one!' said my dad.
And went to the hospital.
'Time to go home Catherine' said the nurse and we got in the car.
This is where my illustrations start to change.  This always happened when I wrote AND illustrated my own work: a gradual evolution from illustration to what I can only describe as abstract art.  Notice I've only drawn my mother here, with an empty car (in a different color than the car in the last photo, which I believe was meant to show my dad also got a paint job on his way back from Kohls), and an American flag.  This is true patriotic pride, a common theme in my earliest work.  Also, it was one of the only things I felt I could draw well.

" 'Here we are!' said My dad.
'Wow!' I thought.
'Here's the krib!' said my dad. 'I got it at Kohl's as well.'
It was a small apartment with only one bedroom."
Physics laws be damned, I was living in some kind of gravity-free apartment.  In this illustration, I wanted to show my grasp of Swedish design concepts; note the complimentary colors, bold pattern and the rocking base (very, very safe I assure you) in its free-floating form by the window.

" 'ZZZZZZ' said I.
So my mom put me to sleep."
My mother at this point has worn three different color dresses in the last three consecutive drawings.  This must've been very intentional, although I'm embarrassed to admit now that the deeper meaning of this imagery is lost to me.  I have managed to keep both the crib and window dressings consistent. 

"When I was one month old, My mom had dressed me
up so pretty.  Then my dad came home.  All of a sudden
you hear this wooosh! I got gone poo all over the place."
Not only have my drawings started to decline, but now the content is questionable.   This is (sadly) a true story.  I am, however, impressed at the action scene of poo flying out of my dress.

"When I was 8 months old My mom hired a
nanny named Robin.  She is very nice."
At this point, I'm definitely losing interest in my subject.  I should've stopped for the day, rested my tired mind, and come back with fresh creativity later.  But I didn't, and I'll have to live with that.  For now, we can appreciate the very fancy couch in the background (which we didn't actually have).  I'm unsure of what program is playing on the TV.

"We did things together.  We read books,
pluzzles, and other things.
At 6:00pm, Mom would come home."
Now I really don't give a %&#*.  This is either my mom coming home from work, having lost not just her face, but her hair, hands, and legs.  She did have an important job at a very large bank, so it's possible that this drawing is not actually a lack of interest, but a commentary on the woes of the modern day workplace.  We lose ourselves in our work.  We come home as an apparition in horrendous clothing, a shell of our former selves (the former self that wore three different dresses in the span of a few minutes).

"Chapter 3 Older
Years went by.  We moved into another house.
I was three years old."
What happened in those formative years I apparently didn't feel was worth recording.  I'd already gone into enough detail about Kohls purchases and shots.  Where this tale began with great intention, it slides quickly downward into this image: me, a 3 year old, on a fancy couch with no legs.  Look at how sad I am.  Is that because I'm disappointed in myself for not fully committing to this creative project?  Am I pondering the passage of time, and how quickly it elapses?  Or is it simply that my neck is at such an impossible angle that I've internally decapitated myself, and/or signed up for years of chiropractic treatment down the road?

The second to last page of my autobiography.
Wow.  Look at this hulking man.  There is no need to end the story of my life (to date at 7 years old) with a "the end".  Because there was (and hopefully is) so much life left to live.  I made the creative decision to draw this cave man, with large muscles.  Yes, I understand the scientific inaccuracy of a tyrannosaurus rex hovering over him (but please note the sad expression).  What I'm most concerned about is whatever it was I was trying to draw by the caveman's right (our left) leg.  Also, please enjoy a list of names randomly placed in between these two characters.

The last page of my autobiography.  The clock.  The words.  Profound.

That's all for now, folks.  I've got plenty more where that came from, so stay tuned.  Also, I'm sorry.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

This One Goes Out To The One(s) I Love!

This week's blog is special.  It's inspired by those who have filled my life the past three years, and I think they deserve an entry dedicated to them.  

Plus, they are dedicated to fitness.

As a few of you may know, I am changing jobs (staying in the field, though).  While I absolutely HATE moving (why haven't molecular transporters been invented/made for mainstream retail sales in places such as Target yet?), I HATE saying goodbye to animals of all species.  So why on earth would I leave, you ask?

Life is complicated.  By complicated I mean, I reproduced and my life went from "What PS4 games should I buy" to "What PS4 games should I buy and also save money for my kid's college?"*  My human and non-human kids are the center of my life (also, cheese).  But so is my career.  And I was able to find a fantastic opportunity for me and my family, AND it moves me closer to my parents, AND has an awesome team and program.

Well Spiderman, you've got more important things to do.

So all of that amounted to a very difficult decision to leave a place I've been so in love with for the last three years.  

I have grown so much as a trainer and leader, not just because of the experiences that happened while I was there, but because the team I was on has a bunch of incredible people at all levels.  To say I've learned a lot from them is an understatement.  I mean, I never worked with pinnipeds or penguins before I went there...they had to teach me everything.  I came in as an assistant supervisor, but was a complete newbie when it came to 75% of the animals they cared for there.  

I learned a lot of other lessons I thought I'd share with all of you.  I've shared with each staff member (animals included) the really serious, meaningful lessons I've learned from them one-on-one.  But I forgot to mention a couple, so here they are.


They've got another puzzle for you

1. You guys constantly tested my level of intelligence.  My ability to comprehend object permanence has been challenged on many occasions vis-a-vis toys stuffed under floating docks by not just by you Chopper, but allllll the others once they realized what you were doing.  This most recently includes you, little Kaya.  You, who on my last show, took a soccer ball and popped it under the dock I was sitting on, then came up and looked at me like, "Oh, what? The ball? What ball?"

You can tell all your dolphin friends that humans really ARE capable of abstract cognitive thought and while we can't use echolocation to see in the dark or through bodies, we invented donuts so we win.  


2. Don't think I didn't notice that no matter where I am stood, you were all trying to get me soaked.  There is a statistically significant relationship between the amount of times I was physically present in the main dolphin show area to when you guys would breach/splash/jump and send insane amounts of water flying directly at me.   Wait, I feel a Dr. Suess stanza welling within me about this:  I could move over here, I could move over there, it just didn't matter, you just didn't care.

Delilah, CEO

3. Delilah, I fully admit on this public forum that you are unequivocally the Grand Empress of the entire facility.  



1. To the sweetest, most unassuming seal: you turn into a holy terror when you disapprove of the following situations: transporting.  You are absolutely terrified by people standing at the wrong angle to your head, and will galumph at warp speed to the nearest body of water and not eat for days.  But if you so much as sense a device that could possibly be used for moving you from one habitat to the other, you instantly become possessed by a demon force and show what harbor seal jaws can really do.  It reminds me of something....

Yes, yes that's it.

2.  Priscilla, you taught me it's really okay to just roll yourself into the water.

And that's okay

3.  You have all showed me that no mammal on the planet can drool more than a seal.  

Sea Lions

I may or may not be taking her with me....

1. How bad can a sea lion fart smell? I know now, thanks to you.  I can confidently state that your farts are difficult for science to categorize as simply "gas", because there is a tangible yet invisible element to its chemical makeup that not only creates odor, but a sort of thick mask that slathers your face and lines the inside of human nostrils.

2. On a related note, you've taught me how to get through a show while you are simultaneously doing a front flipper walk whilst farting and launching small amounts of poo in glorious parabolic arches like some kind of sulfur fountain.  

3. I've also learned that it is a privilege you bestow upon us naked apes to let us touch you when you're fuzzy, and for that I am eternally grateful.

African Penguins

He's so handsome :)

1. To the anonymous elderly lady penguin (whose identity I am protected for fear of her finding me in my new home and teaching me a lesson):  You've taught me to Never. Never. Never pick up a penguin and put your face right in their face.  

Cuz ow.

2. You all create more confusion among guests than any other species of animal in the park.  I never thought I'd hear so many frustrated or hopelessly confused people comment on how you all survive the Florida heat.  

3.  You're also possibly more popular than even the dolphins (I'd suggest keeping that fact a secret from them).


There there, human. 

1.  You've taught me that if I can dream it, I can do it!  You never let anything like size, safety, or even the laws of physics stop you from destroying things.  You can destroy cement.  You can stuff rocks into pipes that we thought could never fit in there.  You can shove our carefully-created diets right in our faces and eat your weight in insects at night, baffling us with your bizarre weight gain.  

2.  There is nothing more heartwarming than one of you curling up in my lap and snuggling while you make those little chirps.  I'll do just about anything if you reinforce me with the otter snuggles!

3.  Your poop is the physical manifestation of a sea lion fart.  

No, trust me Amy, it's true.


This was the best day!

1. You CAN successfully complete a day on a diet of donuts, cheese puff balls, pizza, and gummy things. 


2.  We look really good in Halloween costumes.

3.  I learned that spending eight hours in heavy rain is only fun when it's with all of you.


It's been a phenomenal adventure and I will miss all of you so much.  You have all done such incredible things with amazingly positive attitudes and it's been an absolute privilege to be on your team.  I can't wait to see what each one of you does with your career, no matter where you stay or go.  

And to the animals, don't ever stop with the mind-messing stuff.  You keep us humble, and that's what humans need most.

Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

* This is a trick question.  There is no way to afford PS4 games, much less any living expenses such as toilet paper and water while saving for college.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Truth About Feeding (And Training) Marine Mammals

One of the rumors flying around about the marine mammal training field centers around the idea that we "deprive" the animals under our care of food.  You know, in order to get them to perform.

You got it, Junior.

This is one of those topics that gets everyone on both sides in a real tizzy, because we both throw cut-and-dry answers at each other that don't really encompass the truth.  Or truths.  Because there are more than one.  Let me explain.

The First Truth  

The most progressive, intelligent training programs don't even rely on food as their main motivator, unless (and this is important) an individual animal just REALLY loves snacks. And that just means that animal is given food as a reinforcer over other fun things, but it doesn't mean food is withheld anymore than you'd say you withhold food from yourself by dividing your meals into breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.

It's not like every day is some kind of eating contest for the animals 

A great trainer learns what each individual likes, and continues to find new things that motivate their animal coworkers.   Long gone are the days of just resting on a food-driven training program, at least with the trainers whom I really admire.  

The Second Truth

The animals often regulate their own diet.  Now, there are some bottomless pits.  They will eat until they explode, feel miserable, and then do it all again the next day*.  But for the most part, with most species of animals, they'll tell you when they're full.  They'll tell you when they're hungry.  And this is often where things get very, very fuzzy.

Let's say I'm doing a session with Molly, the sea lion.  She's a very nervous, older lady who doesn't have a lot of history with non-food reinforcement.  When she's in the right mood, she digs tactile and ice cubes.  She gets super pumped learning new behaviors.  But if she senses something bone-chillingly terrifying, such as a jelly bean, she will lose her mind.  

The sweet, completely shakeable Molly Brown.

When Molly is really hungry, especially when it starts getting colder, she is a lot less likely to freak out, but she also gets really clingy and hyper.  So even though it's great she's not leaving us every second, it's not ideal that she's so hungry she can't even focus.  That's not safe for us, nor is it good for her. She also watches us longingly as we leave the habitat.  So we will raise her daily food intake until we find the amount she's happy with. Meaning she's calm, focused, and happy-full.

When Molly starts to get super full, she starts to freak out more.  Not necessarily in situations that she's comfortable with, but in situations where things aren't totally favorable.  Maybe she's with a sea lion she's not so into.  Maybe there are too many seagulls flying around, creating those horrifying shadows on the ground.  The fact is, this is often the first clue that she's starting to get full.  To the untrained eye, us deciding to drop Molly's food for the day looks like we are depriving her in order to get her to "perform".  But that's not it at all.

The truth is, Molly will not sit with us long enough to feed her the entire amount when she's in this mode.  She is too busy doing her own thing.  If we were really concerned about her being skinny or needing to eat (like if she was sick and didn't have a good appetite), we'd try tossing fish in the water or feeding her in any way we could...but she still won't eat it.  She refuses it.  She limits her own diet. 

The classic human diet self-regulator

We drop her base down when she's like this, so she is more comfortable.  Not because we want her hungry so she "performs".  

Each animal is different, though.  Some can do entire sessions without a single food item (and in my humble opinion, I think that's the most ideal method of training animals).   There are many dog trainers who only use favorite toys as reinforcement.  A friend of mine used apps on her phone to reinforce an elephant (like, this elephant played the apps).

The Third Truth

Some animals are a PAIN IN THE BUTT to feed.  They are the pickiest souls and it's like running a marathon every day you're at work, because you know they have to get this certain amount of food but they're all like, "Oh, you fed that to me at a 58 degree angle.  I only eat 59 degree angle fish."  Penguins are fantastic examples of this.  I've known a few dolphins too who can't handle certain species of fish, or will only eat the fish if it's cut in half, or cut into steaks.  These animals require trainers to spend their entire day coming up with methods of reinforcing them JUST FOR EATING.

This is why sometimes, you have to be picky.

The Fourth Truth

"They remember...."

The animals know they are going to get all the food they want to eat throughout the day.  Everyone involved in the debate about animals in zoos can agree that the animals are not mindless machines; they remember, they learn our behavioral patterns, etc.  They know if they refuse to do something, the only reason they will not eat all of their food for the day is because they are refusing to EAT, not because they are refusing a behavior.  

The Final Truth

Here's the last truth I want to discuss, and it's something I really want you to pay attention to because it's basically the most intelligent philosophical idea I've come up with to date (and I'm really proud of it): the only animals deprived in marine mammal facilities are.........

.............the trainers.

Wake up!! WAKE UP!

Yes.  You read that right. 

WE are the ones who starve all day.  Oh my GOD just this week alone I think I complained about 30 times a day about how freaking hungry I was.  I ate breakfast, came to work, had our morning meeting, and the second I stepped foot into the fish kitchen I thought about how disappointing my lunch I brought was and how I just wanted a big thing of french fries.  Sometimes, the fish kitchen (which shares the same building as our snack bar) smells like hamburgers.  I'm a vegetarian but I still want to eat the planet when I smell a big juicy cheeseburger.  

But can I go eat then?  No.  I can't.  I have to wait many hours until my lunch.  So until then, I spend my time feeding other animals.  Feeding them until they are happy-full, until the next session in the not-to-distant-future, when another belly-bombing sesh takes place.  All the while, we humans are staring at animals swallowing pounds of fish and contemplating how we can: order, pick up, and eat burritos from the taco place on our 30 minute lunch break.

This talent would be very useful at lunch time.  Or any other time.

The second an animal seems hungry, we go into "should we give him/her more" mode.  Most of the time, we decide to give them more in the moment.  That is NOT how my day   goes.  I have one shot to really stuff my face at work, and that's lunch time.  If I screw that up, I'm in for a long, miserable afternoon.  If I tell my boss, "Hey, I'm still really hungry" he's not all like, "Oh okay, let's give you 15 more minutes to eat."

Anyone who really thinks we starve animals needs to remember that the next time they walk through a marine mammal facility, they are looking at full, happy animals and a bunch of starving, salivating trainers.  As many times as I've gotten the Middle Flipper from animals when I've asked them to do something (all of whom eat the amount of food that they want, regardless of how cooperative they are), I can tell you that I am a complete wuss compared to those animals.  If someone motivated me with delicious treats, I'd do just about anything.  Seriously.  Especially in that 10-11am, and 3-4pm range when I'm so hungry I actually contemplate going into the lunch room fridge and eating the 8-day-old birthday cake that is so dry and hard it could be used as building material.  If my boss wanted me to work 9 hours of overtime, all he'd have to do is talk to me in the aforementioned time frames and say, "You'll be paid handsomely in chips and salsa."  Done.

I hope that's cleared up a common misconception about my line of work.  Now I'm going to dive into a giant Chicago deep dish pizza.
* I am a card-carrying member of this club

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Animal Learning Types

I've been thinking a lot about training behaviors and all that it entails.  I mean d'uh, I'm an animal trainer by trade so obviously I think about this topic more than just occasionally.  But for some reason, for many years, I've been really obsessed with one particular training topic.  Yes, conditioning behavior is rooted in scientific principles.  But the application of those principles is really diverse, and not just from person to person, or facility to facility.  It really depends on the individual animal.  

Wait a second....

I know that's not really big news to most of you.  We learn best when the lesson is optimized towards our learning strengths.  We learn best when our own personal motivators are used as reinforcement, even if the task at hand is awful.  For example, if you want me to go to a Zumba class (hugely aversive), you are not going to get me there with eggplant parmesan.  Yuck.  But if we're talking a giant pan of macaroni and cheese where the cheese is all burnt on top and also maybe there is a $100 bill thrown in there somewhere, I'll go Zumba*.

Yep, there it is.

Right right right, you already know all of that.  What I've really been interested in though, beyond just who individual animals are, are the TYPES of learners we see in animals.  We have these types for people.  You hear all the time, "Oh, I didn't understand that lecture because I'm a visual learner" or whatever.  You know what your own personal learning type is.  So why wouldn't animals?

I'm no scientist or sociologist.  But I do think I've nailed Animal Learning Types, and now I'm ready to unveil my findings to all of you.  Within this, I've not just described the type, but have added helpful tips on the pros and cons to each type and how best to deal with them.  And this is a living document; feel free to add your own insights, types, or stories in the comment section.   Okay, here we go.

The Sentence Finisher (TSF)

I (adverb) agree

Definition: Human Sentence Finishers are a dime a dozen.  You know the type; when you're trying to tell a story and TSF jumps in and tries to complete your sentence.  In training terms, the  animal who guesses everything you're doing during training approximations is a Sentence Finisher.  Despite careful shaping and meticulous bridging, the Sentence Finisher is always offering what they believe is the finished behavior.  Usually,  like human Sentence Finishers, they are completely wrong.

Me: Hi! We are going to learn a front flip.  Can you start by just touching your rostrum to the target pole like -


Me: Um, no.  If you could just -


Here is an adorable Sentence Finisher

Pro: If they guess right, you just saved a bunch of time on your behavior.  It also makes you a more patient trainer when they are not correct.
Con: They are almost never right, and it takes you about 670 times longer to train
Helpful tip: Take it easy with the approximations.  Maybe just do one per session.  Maybe one per day.  TSF thrives on guessing step 100 when you're on step 2, so don't let them rehearse guessing.  Also, consider teaching this animal your native language so you can just explain to them what you want (WARNING: they may continue to finish sentences).
The Genius (TG)

Carl, it's okay.

Definition: The insanely, scarily intelligent animal who knows how to solve every problem and/or cause just the right problems.  TG picks up behaviors at lightning quick speed with rare occasions of over-thinking things.  They have memories like steel traps and are thirsty for more knowledge than you can possibly provide.  They can escape, destroy, and outsmart any human or conspecific.  


Me: Here is a lexicon board.  Each symbol on the board represents an action or reinforcement.

TG: Right.  That's pretty clear.  What'd you use for inspiration for the symbols? Proto-norse runes?

Me: Er...yes.  I think.  I don't know, I found them on a google search.

TG: Okay, talk to me when you're feeling a little more cerebral.

hehehehehehe they have no clue how genius I really am hehehehehhe

Pro: Super easy to teach, makes you gape in awe and wonder at how smart non-human animals are, are usually very reliable, and have limitless potential for really cool cognitive stuff
Con: Gets extremely frustrated if their mind is not constantly engaged.  May have a short fuse for BS.
Helpful tip: Get out of their way.  Let them decide their learning pace.  Consider managing their political campaign when the time is right (so you can get some credit).

The Golden Child (TGC)

I'll pick you! I'll pick you right up and snuggle.

Definition: The  animal who does everything you want, no matter what.  They are the people-pleaser, they are the animal you first learn, they are the big puppy dogs who want all of your love and attention.  You can detonate a shrapnel bomb next to their head and they will not react, because they are too busy trying to figure out why you've stopped playing with them. 

Me: Hey! Today we are going to learn eye drops!  Just keep your eyes open and still, and I'm going to put these drops in them.

TGC: Okay! SURE! No problem! Is this wide enough????????

Me: Oh, yes, perfect! Great job!


What a guy, this one!

Pro: Fast learners, tend to have fantastic attitudes in many situations, reliable (because of this, it's easy to tell if something isn't quite right if they suddenly are not acting their chipper selves)
Con: Can make trainers complacent
Helpful tip: Keep these animals challenged; don't go through the norm! It may take a while for these animals to show a lack of motivation because of their tendency to do everything at their best, but that doesn't mean that they don't need lots of variability and challenges.  Make sure you give these guys the same respect they deserve for whatever animal species they are, no matter how sweet they are.  A friendly velociraptor is still a velociraptor.

The Literal Lad (or Lass) (TLL)

Not sure that protractor will survive 

Definition: There is no gray.  There is only black and white.  Whatever you just bridged a TLL for, that's exactly what they will do next time.  ABCD.  1234.  There is no thinking outside of the box, because there is only the box.  A black and white box for serious business only.  Don't get me wrong; these animals can still be very smart, very friendly and a blast to work with. But when it comes to training, we're talking about an insane attention-to-details-you-never-noticed.


Me: Why did you just swing your rear flippers to the right during that jump?

TLL: Because I did that last time.  And I got bridged for it.  I also blinked my eyes really fast three times, just like last time.  And I'm still exhaling for the duration of the behavior, like you bridged me for three weeks ago that one time.

Me: OMG what?! I was bridging you for your height!

TLL: Well, you should've made that clear.

Awesome lady <3

Pro: It's easy to get crisp criteria if you are careful with your bridge points and reinforcement
Con: It's easy to get insane behavioral drift if you are not careful with your bridge points and reinforcement
Helpful tip: Know that these guys are Always Watching; they remember whatever it was they were doing when you reinforced them.  That means you have to be on your A game 134% of the time; no sloppy bridges allowed.  These guys have a sense of humor, it just might be weird, like John Malkovich.

The Matriarch (or Patriarch)

The ultimate matriarch

Definition: This animal does not need an acronym, they need a royal title.  There can be only one Matriarch (or in some cases, a Patriarch), and you know exactly who she is.  She is old, she is sassy, she is smarter than you and she is ready to prove to you that you work for her. Matriarchs can be super sweet or downright crabby, but no matter how nice or grumpy they are, they are the boss.


Me: Nice to meet you, your royal highness.  May I trouble you for a training session?

Matriarch: Have you brought us snacks?

Me: Yes.  

Matriarch: Well, that's a fine start.  But I've never met you before and so I am going to pretend like everything you are doing is wrong and that I have no clue what you are asking me for so you look like a complete fool.  When you have suffered long enough and have earned my respect, I'll cooperate so long as we have an understanding that you are under contract.

"Just making sure you're still working for me."

Pro: Reliable, once you've proven yourself worthy of her (or his) respect.  Great training teacher.
Con: Will mess with your head so badly you'll think you're actually Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of Inception.  Has had decades of experience screwing with human minds.
Helpful tip: You should respect all animals, but this one above all others.  You really DO work for the Matriarch.  She really DOES know everything about humans and how they train.  Bow down to her and she will take care of you.

So there you have it, the highly scientifical animal learning types.  Use this information wisely, and as always, feel free to add to this.  The more we know, the better animal care givers we become (and the more the animals control all of our emotions, but whatever. That's the best part!)

* I'd probably eat the mac and cheese after said class, for reasons known only to me and my tummy