In early April, right after ClickerExpo East, I went to Baltimore for the third annual conference of the Animal Behavior Management Alliance. This organization provides a forum and educational opportunities for people training animals with operant conditioning, especially for keepers working in zoos. I had been invited to give the opening speech.
ABMA conferences are similar to other scientific meetings. Attendees present papers or posters on their work, there are plenary sessions and workshops, and tours of nearby facilities of interest to the group: in this case zoos, oceanariums, and animal theme parks.
The 300 or so attendees at this year's conference, the biggest yet, included many young keepers, both male and female; scientists, aquarists, and curators; trainers from around the world including panda experts from China; and some dog trainers, reporting on clicker training for search and rescue, shelter management, and service dogs.
Zoo managers used to consider a keeper's job to be largely manual laborer, requiring strength more than skill. Not any more. Today the zoos advertise for college graduates with some science background (and, often, a knowledge of operant conditioning). A large percentage of new hires are women. And many of them are dedicated and committed to operant conditioning as a way of enriching the lives of the animals in their care.
Several ClickerExpo faculty members were present at this year's conference, including founder and ABMA President Gary Priest, from the San Diego Zoo; Thad Lacinak, from Sea World/Busch Gardens; Angi Millwood, from the Ft. Worth Zoo and Natural Encounters in Florida; Nicole Dorey and other graduate students from the University of North Texas; and Emma Parsons. As at ClickerExpo, Emma talked on positive management of aggression through operant conditioning, a topic of great interest to people whose learners include elephants, lions, tigers, gorillas, crocodiles, and other potentially dangerous beasts. Emma's presentation won a prize from the ABMA (look for details on www.clickertraining.com in May).
Zoos refer to their training by the correct scientific term, "operant conditioning," rather than the popular term clicker training, but they do mean what we mean: training by positive reinforcement and shaping, usually with the clicker for a bridge. Zookeepers loved the extendable target sticks (PET), the quiet and ergonomic i-click (especially useful for working with timid animals), and Melissa Alexanders's award winning book Click for Joy as well as the new Clicking with Your Horse: Step by Step in Pictures.
Most of the presentations consisted of training procedures and examples, providing a huge variety of good ideas for trainers and keepers to take home to their own facilities. Here's a sample:
- Overcoming training obstacles (weather, pregnancy, time, money and space problems, lack of cooperation from others, etc.) in a pack of 21 African Wild Dogs. In spite of the difficulties, the keepers succeeded in training for blood draws and vaccinations, and in developing a bunch of natural behaviors that allowed them to put on educational demos for the public, with the pack.
- A downcast, sickly, aggressive, trembling fish crow named Edgar, taken off display in the zoo's educational department because of his poor appearance and bad manners, was rehabilitated through operant conditioning by a novice trainer and has become a healthy, shiny, cooperative friend to all.
- Cheetahs can run 60 m.p.h., but not in a cage. Janet Ramsay and Susie Ekard, from the San Diego Zoo, presented a paper on how they trained a young male cheetah to chase a lure over considerable distances: great fun for the cheetah and the trainers and a big hit with management. (Gary Priest gave ClickerExpo Berkeley audiences a hilarious and impressive video sneak preview of this successful project.)
- Teaching birds to play: E.J. Fernandez, one of Jesus Rosales-Ruiz' former graduate students, and penguin keeper Rickey Kinley, used food rewards to teach penguins to play with floating objects, a useful technique for enriching the environment of captive animals.
- Sheri Solti, from Texas Hearing and Service Dogs, and Misty O'Neal, a quadriplegic handler with significant mobility challenges, demonstrated how Misty has been able to train and manage her own service dog, shelter rescue Nellie, through operant conditioning.
- Megan Draheim, a graduate student at George Mason University, is using clicker training in her field research on coyotes. Her two shelter rescue dogs have been scent-trained, with the clicker, to identify by species scat samples taken from the field, helping Megan locate and track the coyotes in her study—a lot cheaper and quicker than the standard method, DNA sampling.
- Self-injurious behavior: Nicole Dorey and others from UNT tackled the common zoo problem of self-injurious repetitive behavior, in this case, an olive baboon plucking hair from its arms. Using procedures adapted from functional analysis with humans, they ascertained that the behavior was being maintained by human attention, and succeeded in substituting a harmless behavior, lip smacking, as an attention getter.
- Keepers at the Pittsburgh Zoo reported on training a whole group of tamarins (tiny monkeys) to come and go as requested—and in the process learning a lot about species-specific behavioral differences.
Studying the behavior of elephant shrews, an almost unknown species in captivity; training spectacled bears to do natural behaviors such as climbing, and nest building; giving elephants gynecological exams; giving allergy shots to a binturong; teaching pandas to have their blood pressure taken; providing veterinary care, through husbandry training, to wild mountain gorillas in the field—the list went on and on.
I thought back to my stint at the National Zoo, 25 years ago. One of the keepers in my class was trying to learn operant conditioning skills with the pandas in her care. The curator of her department put a stop to that. He said to me, "I frankly do not see the point of teaching tricks to the panda to impress the other keepers."
Times have changed. Now zoos are paying keepers to come to this conference and other training conferences, like our ClickerExpos. Trainers have formed companies to provide consulting help to other zoos; at the ABMA meeting, I observed keepers looking for consulting help and senior trainers happily finding new clients. While some zoos still resist the change, the keepers themselves are making it work, with all kinds of organisms, in all kinds of facilities, and with management support or without. Here, if not everywhere, I think the tipping point has been reached.
To the Animal Behavior Management Alliance members, thank you so much for inviting me to talk. You are wonderful. It was an inspiration.
To the MANY zookeepers and curators who came to our ClickerExpos this season, thanks for enriching our experience. We'll see you back, I hope, for the new training programs and experiences we're planning for the next round of ClickerExpos.