Sunday, June 18, 2017

Have A Good Time, All Of The Time

At the very end of the glorious movie This Is Spinal Tap, the keyboardist Viv Savaged says, "Have a good time, all of the time.  That's my philosophy, Marty." 

Your philosophy goes to eleven.
That quote pops into my head frequently, especially when working with animals.  In fact, the other day at my forensics internship, some of the higher-ups stopped me to comment on my dolphin sleeve.  They asked what my inspiration was for it, and I told them that my former career was in marine mammal training.  Their response? “OH that must be such a fun job!”

I know that as zookeepers, we tend to be wary of how the general public sees us.  We do a job that appears to basically amount to what most people do on their weekends: hang out with their dogs, snuggle with their cats, send their parrots to attack their enemies, etc.  The point is, it looks like a lot of fun to do our job.  So much so, that we are often met with offensive lines of questioning dealing with our academic background (e.g. “Your job is not a real career”).  As a result, we have our own internal script regarding how professional our job is, the journey we took to get to where we are, AND the intense physical and emotional labor that frankly, not everyone can do.

Uh.  Yeah I'm gonna need a lot more than 50k to do that.

But there is another aspect to the zookeeping field that people don't tend to see until they've actually done it.  It can be boring.  It can be frustrating.  It is extremely repetitive in a lot of ways.  And you don't have the option of cutting corners, unless you’re a butthead who forgot that you're 100% responsible for the well-being of the animals in your care.  Zookeeping can, and does for many of us, become a “job”.

I wrote about this situation before, giving suggestions on how I have gotten through moments where I felt totally unmotivated (and here is an amazing guest writer who wrote about something similar!).  But I want to focus on one aspect of it that I feel sometimes gets forgotten or (worse) frowned upon, depending on your training philosophy.  

One of the aspects of a marine mammal training job is learning what motivates each individual animal, and using that to reinforce whatever you’re training or maintaining.  Somewhere along the timeline of operant conditioning of marine mammals, we as a field became oddly fixated on “primary” reinforcement as food.  An entire diet is used for the main reward for behavior.  In and of itself, this is fine as long as we are careful to not use its absence to correct or “motivate” animals to do something.**

Listen to MJ!

Technically, primary reinforcement as defined by its original definer B.F. Skinner as something that directly rewards the behavior it follows.  Secondary reinforcement is something that reinforces a behavior because it signals a primary reinforcer will be delivered.   But as dolphin trainers, we saw that as primary = food.  While that may be true for some animals (good LORD I have my fair share of stories of lunch box dolphins), that is not, in my opinion, an accurate interpretation of the definition.

Primary reinforcement can also be defined as “unconditioned” reinforcers.  That….can seriously be anything.  I worked with animals who were not food-motivated…including calves who were still nursing but would do anything for ice cubes and back rubs.  Some animals learn on their own how much fun certain toys are, without pairing it with a primary reinforcer.  Is a favorite toy of an animal a secondary reinforcer if it was never paired with primary? No.   It’s a primary.

This young man has tons of primaries. 

Dolphins ESPECIALLY are easily trained with non-food rewards.  I’ve worked with sea lion pups who had a faster learning rate and longer retention rate when frisbees were used as rewards versus big ass herring (which they chewed on and sometimes refused).  I know a lot of you reading this are nodding your heads in agreement.  

So why, when we get to the point in our job where we hit our first wall, is the first thing to go the BEST part of our job?  Why do we fall into the misled belief that our job is to chuck prescribed amounts of fish at gaping mouths in order to get through our show, interaction, or husbandry session?  Why are we looking at the clock as it inches towards the end of our shift?

There are a lot of complicated reasons why we get disillusioned, bored, or frustrated with our jobs.  But you know what? The animals in our care can’t know that.  They can’t receive less attention because of it.  And the easiest way to deal with this? PLAY.  PLAY. 

Have a good time, all of the time.

The fastest way I got out of a funk was to refocus my efforts on learning what the animals in my care actually dug.  Not what I thought they did, not what I was taught previously.  I used my background in behavioral analysis to understand that, if I am just limply flopping a basketball to a dolphin four inches from her face because I’m “using secondaries to be variable”, then I’m doing a major disservice to myself and (more importantly) the animal.  What if I try new things? Does this dolphin get PSYCHED when I hurl a football as far as I can?  Does this dolphin get extremely focused when I hide toys around the habitat?  If the answer was yes, then I knew what my reinforcement was. 

Plus, when I was playing with animals, I looked GREAT in photos

Most of the animals I’ve worked with (and with five facilities under my belt, I have had the honor of knowing many critters) LOVED. TO. PLAY.  It wasn’t the same with each of them, but it was very challenging to find an animal who did not become more attentive and motivated when I just effing played with them.  I kept my behavioral rules in place, I did not sacrifice my job as a trainer to be predictable and fair.  But I tossed aside the bizarrely dry concepts of food motivation and allegedly “scientific” behavioral interpretation (hint: it was not scientific assessment, just more anthropomorphic assumptions) and found more motivated animals, more consistent behavior, AND a happier trainer.

Life's too short and training's not as effective to not REALLY play :)

PLAY with your animals, guys.  You won’t regret it.  What is SO amazing about all of you is that you guys are super smart, you know your animals and the goals you have to achieve, so you know how to interpret this advice (if you find it valuable, of course).  Do your animals a favor and actually be variable.  Do your animals a favor and listen (er…watch) to what they are saying when you use a reinforcer.   Simply, have FUN.  You don’t owe anyone else an explanation about why you’re having fun in your job.  You earned your position, you work your balls off, you spend more time with your work family than your own, you are in school debt for a degree you needed for the “little summer job” you’ve made your career, and your main responsibility is to provide the highest quality of life to the animals you are lucky enough to care for.  HAVE FUN AND PLAY.  :)

* As an aside, one of the many overlaps I've discovered about dolphin training and forensic science is that my higher ups at my internship totally understand how public perception differs from how the job actually is.  Everyone thinks being a “CSI” is really just wearing sexy clothes and solving crimes in 45 minutes, so anyone involved with actual forensic science can probably relate to the plight of zookeepers in this way.

** If you are still doing this, STOP IT. 

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