Sunday, June 11, 2017

Reality Bites

Animals bite.

With aaaarms wide open

It's a fact of life that most people who share their lives with animals (professionally or as companions) will get bit by an animal.  As zookeepers, we spend a measurable portion of our guest interactions sharing this fact with people who appear to be surprised that the animals we care for bite...even in the case of top predators. 

What baffles me about the question is that people get bit by their pets all the time.  But what isn't so surprising is that I think many of us kind of cover up this fact when it happens.  We are okay talking about the theoreticals (e.g. "Well any animal with a mouth can bite") but when it REALLY happens, especially to US, it feels like The Worst Thing Ever.    

It was you

When people's pets bite, it's usually chalked up to an accident.  And sometimes, that is accurate.  Maybe you held a dog treat in a weird way, and as your ancient, sweet golden retriever goes to take it from your hand, her one remaining tooth grazes your fingernail or something.  Sometimes, your pet definitely bites you.  Like, a sun conure flies at your face and chews on your neck.  But you still call it an accident, or you sweep that story under the rug.  And then you roll up the rug, and throw it into a tar pit and light the entire thing on fire.

Sometimes, we professional animal people do the same thing.  Despite what animal rights extremists say, we don't usually "cover" anything up because we want to lie to the public.  Granted, I know that is sometimes the case, but not commonly.  Most of us are more than happy to talk to guests about the safety precautions we take when working with exotic animals....if only to discourage our guests from trying to interact with these animals in the wild, should they come across them.

No, most of us just feel really SAD when we get bit.  And mortified.  And insecure.


This extends to other forms of aggression, like pushing, fluking, charging, grabbing, whatever.  When an animal we think we have a great relationship with suddenly hurts us (or tries) the only reason we wouldn't want to talk about it is because....we are real sad.

For me, the best example of this was with Alvin, an old dude bottlenose dolphin I worked with at Marineland.  Alvin was one of my favorite animals.  He was in his mid 40s and if you didn't really work to get to know him, he was the archetypal Old Man that is ubiquitous in social mammals, humans included.  You know, totally crusty, only has two emotions ("Pissed" and "GIRRRRLS"), and doesn't give a crap that you exist.

He got multi-species action

BUT, there was something about this guy that I really liked.  And as I got to know him, I realized that he had a few things he really dug.  He liked footballs and pool noodles, especially if you got really into playing with them, not the limp-wristed, cursory play we sometimes fall into when we use toys as reinforcement (I mean come on, PLAY, people!).   He started soliciting attention outside of session, and I just fell completely in love.

Occasionally, our old boys would do shallow-water interactions.  They were pretty much the masters of the pool side encounters, but their long and varied history with water work provided some unique challenges when introducing guests in the water (namely, they had no interest in just sitting still with a bunch of tourists).  By the time I worked there, the boys were pretty good at shallow-water programs, but still did them sparingly since they didn't really seem to dig them as much as the girls and younger guys.

Look at that handsome stud in the center.  This was in the mid-80s

So okay, we wind up with three calves born at the same time.  Awesome, right? YES.  But not so awesome when you're an interaction facility, and the calves are born in June which is just at the beginning of an insanely busy summer season.  That meant we needed to rotate the boys through to shallow-water programs more than we typically would, so the other non-mom dolphins wouldn't have to do all the programs for three months.

I took Alvin a lot during that time.  And I was having fun.  I thought Alvin was, too.  There were toys.  There was new training.  The guests had fun, and I had fun.  Alvin was going nuts for his footballs.  So I started doing some new things.  I started swimming alongside him in the water (I was still on a ledge).  He seemed to be really into that....I chalked it up to his old show days.   He became very attentive and solicited more tactile.  His behavior became crisper when I used the swim-alongs as reinforcement. 

Everything is cool when you do swim-alongs

And then one day, at the end of a program as I sent my guests walking out of the habitat, I floated in hip-deep water and let my feet float towards Alvin.  I was talking to the guests as they ascended up the zero entry beach, letting them know I would be right behind them and where they could put their life jackets.  As I turned back to Alvin, BAM.  He rushed at me and grabbed my left calf with his mouth, chomped down, and pulled his jaw down the length of my leg.  After he let go, he stared at me with his head under the water.  I don't even remember now what I did, but I got out and saw a giant rake mark down my leg.  His teeth were very worn down, so it was a very superficial injury.  Had his teeth been sharp, that would've been gnarly.

But what hurt most? My feelings.  I know there are trainers out there moaning right now, and shame on you.  We say we spend so much of our time cultivating relationships with the animals under our care, and yet we deny the very normal emotions that come along with that, in good times and in bad.

Maybe I should just quit and become a forensic scientist

I thought I was completely wrong about my rapport with Alvin.  Why would he do that to me? I thought we had something special.  But if we did, he would never have bit me. If I was a good trainer, that wouldn't have happened.  I couldn't hide what happened, because I had a moral and ethical obligation to tell the rest of the team what happened.  But I was totally embarrassed.  This would just prove that the connection I felt with Alvin was all in my head.

But you know what? No. 

I looked back at what I had done that session and leading up to his aggressive act.  I got cocky.  I took my attention away from him, meaning I couldn't read his body language, or any precursors where he might have told me, "Cat, STOP.  I don't like this."  I just let my feet float up in his face, turned myself away from a longer period of time than I normally would, and ignored him.  I don't know what was going on in his head, but I do know that how I acted that day was not consistent whatsoever with how I normally interacted with him.

Preach, Kurt.

Several weeks later, he had more aggressive incidents with a few other trainers....and come to find out, he had lost a significant amount of vision in one eye.  This vision loss was severe and while dolphins do not need their eyesight to do their dolphin thing, it was not an easy change to deal with, especially when none of the trainers were aware of it until it was visually obvious.

I realized how selfish I was being.  First, it isn't all about ME when an animal bites.  Are there things that I did or didn't do that contribute to that? Yes.  Sometimes, those things are 99% of the reason why an animal aggresses.  Other times, I am just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Second, aggression is communication.  It is the last effort to convey a really serious (at least in the animal's mind) problem.  That might mean you as a trainer are not listening.  It also might mean the animal has experienced something so out of their comfort zone that they are not using their normal, rational brain.  Third, aggression is almost always a two-way street.  The animal bite you, yes, but you played a role in that, big or small. 

Lastly, my relationship with Alvin placed me in a prime spot for aggression.  How?

Think about it.  Who in your life hurts you the most?  Who are you the most comfortable around, where you say things that you wouldn't necessarily say to others?

Alvin telling me all of his deepest secrets, which mostly had to do with lady dolphins

The people you have close relationships with are on the front lines of aggression, passive or active.  And there is no difference with animals.

Don't get me wrong, I understand there are situations where an animal will aggress on caretakers who they don't know well.   What I'm saying is, when an animal with whom you have a close relationship bites you or charges you, it doesn't mean your relationship is worthless.  It means you need to reassess what you have been doing and be honest about if it is working or not.  It means you need to not make excuses for the animal and take the aggression seriously, for consistency sake.  Sometimes, it might mean that what you were doing was NOT good for that particular animal.

Also, please understand that I am not diminishing the seriousness of these situations.  I am in no way encouraging people to get excited about being bitten or pushed or charged, nor do I think it is something we should be light-hearted about.  Aggression is not fun, and it is something we strive to eliminate, and it can be extremely dangerous.  Even when it isn't dire, it is something that embarrasses and scares us. Setting aside really bad aggression (like, threatening life and limb), getting superficially hurt by an animal is a message, if you listen to what the animal is saying.  It is a gift if you can set aside that primal reaction of humiliation, defensiveness, or broken heartedness.  It is an opportunity, just like the drop down drag out fights you have among your loved ones, to learn from one another.  That is what intimacy is.  It is seeing each other in your very best and very worst, and accepting all of it. 


In closing, biting needs to be taken seriously from a safety and behavioral perspective.  But in most cases, it does not automatically mean you are insane for thinking you have a good relationship with an animal.  In fact, having a good relationship doesn't mean you will never get usually means the opposite*.

* Unless you work with otters, whose personalities suddenly freeze and recede deep within themselves, leaving nothing but pure physical otterness that will express itself via horrific biting.  

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