Where have you worked as a trainer in zoos?
My first exposure to training was when I worked in the education department at SeaWorld. I watched the animal trainers, and got interested in doing it myself. My first real training experience was at Disney's Animal Kingdom, working with trainer and Curator of Behavioral Husbandry Marty Sevenich MacPhee. Marty is an incredible trainer, saw that I was interested, and gave me advice, encouragement, and opportunities to learn. She's still my mentor, and the first person to whom I turn for advice. At Disney I gained experience working with a variety of large animal species. I moved on to be the animal training coordinator at the Forth Worth Zoo.
Now, with Natural Encounters, I have the opportunity to consult at a wide variety of zoos across the United States . Most people know Natural Encounters for their terrific bird shows, but they are also known for setting training and enrichment programs for zoos and their staff.
When were you first immersed in operant conditioning?
Right from the beginning at Disney's Animal Kingdom. There, positive reinforcement-based training for husbandry and enrichment is not considered a luxury, but part of the expected care of the animals. Disney identified training and enrichment early on as a part of the best care for animals, and it is a part of every consideration, from building design to hiring staff, for every animal from elephants to snakes.
What is your favorite species to work with?
People ask me this wherever I go. The truth is I tend to fall in love with whatever animal I'm working with, so it is the individuals, rather than the species, that stand out. There was a white rhino named Gloria, and an orangutan named Toean, and a lion named Spike. Each had a particular challenge I needed to work through, or was an animal with whom I spent a lot of time. If I were pressed to name a species, I suppose I'd say white rhinos or orangs, but then I do love warthogs.
What's your process of designing training programs for zoos?
I've had the opportunity to work with a variety of programs, and each was different. When you start a program from scratch, the task can seem overwhelming. So we begin with a priority list of what should be trained. The first priority can be determined by an urgent medical condition of a certain animal or an animal for whom immobilization for husbandry procedures carries a high risk. From there, we look at individual areas within the zoo, the primate area or Africa area, for example. Then we prioritize again, until every need is met.
Some of the more established zoos have very active training programs. Other zoos may have no experienced trainers, or trainers whose experience is based on dominance. Some trainers are very rooted in the perspective that training is forcing an animal versus getting an animal to cooperate with you. The animals are easy to train. The hardest thing is always shifting the mindset of the staff that aren't quite there yet.
We all learn through experience, however, and we need to build new experiences for those trainers. We start by teaching workshops and showing them what's possible through positive reinforcement. Then we follow up with a lot of coaching and feedback. We train the trainers and reinforce them for every approximation in the right direction with a smile, a pat on the back, by telling them they did a great job—even by throwing a party for the staff.
How do you tailor a training program to the natural history versus the individual history of an animal?
The training program must be tailored to both the natural history and the individual history of an animal. Knowing the natural history of an animal determines which behaviors are possible (you can't train an elephant to jump through a hoop), the time of day that your sessions will likely be most successful, the type of reinforcements to use, the cues that will be most workable based on the animal's sensory modalities, safety standards, and on and on. Is the animal skittish or social or aggressive?
Natural history also determines what type of bridge or marker signal you might use, according to the animal's communication modality. For example, some animals (tree kangaroos) use clicks as an alarm call. For these animals, you would want to find a bridge other than a clicker. I once worked with a group of mandrills in Forth Worth. When we started training them with a clicker, they jumped in alarm. Even when we switched to softer clickers, they displayed fear. When we switch to a whistle, they were fine.
The individual history is just as or more important. Every animal is an individual, after all. We would never expect human children to learn in the same way at the same pace for the same reward. You need to consider whether an animal was hand-reared or not, and its entire history of interactions with humans. I worked with a white rhino, Gloria, who was very aggressive and knew very little on cue. It took a couple of months to work through her aggression. She hadn't had much human interaction for most of her long life, and had to work through her bad experiences. By the end, we were able to do voluntary blood draws, mouth, eye, and ear exams, and a variety of other behaviors. Knowing her individual history helped us to form a better plan for her training.
What are the biggest challenges zoos face?
Specific to animal training, lack of understanding and expertise is the biggest challenge. Many administrators and keepers don't understand that training requires an initial time investment, yet in the long run saves time. They need to consider how much time zoo keepers expend in shifting animals or grabbing an animal for a procedure. Training so that an animal cooperates during its management saves time for the keepers and reduces stress for the animals. And yet without expert trainers, it's hard to prove the impact of training. Nevertheless, the news is spreading and the skill level is increasing overall.
What are you going to cover in your sessions at ClickerExpo San Diego?
My primary session, "Training Transformation and Problem-Solving in the Zoo," will cover how operant condition benefits animals and people in zoo. Who knew you could train a rhino to stand still for 30 minutes for an ultrasound? Another session, "Click to Calm, Part 2," will cover what to do when things don't go as planned. Inevitably things will go wrong. Working through those situations relies on having a problem-solving process, and we'll have one that people can take home with them and use on their own.
You'll be teaching in Karen Pryor's "Click a Critter" class, focusing on birds. What can bird owners look forward to learning?
What I hope to get across to bird owners is how to read their birds' body language, how to take cues from their bird, and how to give their birds more power over their environment. In general, how to make positive breakthroughs with their animals.
What do you like best about teaching at ClickerExpo?
I think there's a tangible energy at ClickerExpo. It's a great charge for me to be around like-minded individuals, regardless of what species they're training. I always learn something new from the faculty and the attendees. When you see those "Aha!" moments on people's faces, you know it's going to change them and their animals. It's so rewarding for me.
I've heard Karen Pryor talk about "change makers," and I agree: If you can be a change maker for one person and their animals, it's worth it.