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


  1. That thing you wrote about the elephant playing with apps is fascinating! They are so smart it blows my mind. Do you happen to know which apps?

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