Measuring the relationship…peter-with-kw

I’m always wondering how far having a relationship goes in the eyes of us trainers. I mean do we value relationships the same as what we have between each other? If this is the case we might need to reconsider what having a good relationship means with the animals we work with. Working with killer whales in various facilities made me understand much better how important it is to build up a relationship, because this was depending on your own safety. The theory was if the relationship is strong enough then the safety is on a higher standard for the animal and yourself. There for we did a lot of relate sessions with the animals.

Now im working in a zoo setting again I think that keepers say to quickly “I have a great relationship with my animals” but if you think about it…by feeding animals everyday the level of the relationship is not high at all. linda-and-trisI mean we feed them that’s true and the animal probably knows hé there he is again  with the food. If the relationship is so strong, would it be that if another keeper would come in, that the animals are afraid at first? I think routine is a big factor here, so to come back to the point when do you have a good relationship with the animals you work with?

When working in Marineland France there were some trainers who had a remarkable relationship with this particular killer whale. In my eyes she was difficult to work with but maybe I just didn’t understand her well. Not to mention that I never worked her because I wasn’t on her team. The responses she would give the trainers, it almost looked like she did more for one trainer as for the other. Once hanging out backstage with her and her trainer I was looking at them and at one point the trainer who was working her said “here pet her on the flipper”. Full enthusiasm I said “is that oke?” The trainer said “yes of course go ahead”. What happened next was a reflection of the trust she had in trainers, a strong relationship, she pulled away her bodyparts further in the pool where I just couldn’t participate in giving her a rubdown. When I backed off she right away went back to the trainer she was working with.

What is the motivation for the animal to have a proper relationship? I mean us humans need a lot of different things but our relationships are not based on getting money everyday from the same person. Our best relationship would be the one with our boss you would say. This doesn’t work like that as we know. We humans need more, we need comfort, we need trust, we need laughs, we need many more emotions what connects at the end to a good relationship. What makes me think… If we want good relationships with animals and I pack all these emotions in a box doesn’t trust stand out the most right away? Trust is an important factor of having good relationships. If you have food everyday, every session, all the time but the animal doesn’t trust you they won’t even eat so how strong is the relationship then?


Enjoying working with the marine mammals once in a while gives me a break of my office work completely. They are training their animals many things in a structured way for the trainers. Im not in this structure and basically do not train the animals new behaviours because im not there often enough. There for I work a lot on relationship based sessions with them. Sessions where I don’t reinforce primary but give that for free after. Play sessions, unpredictability etc etc. Its me that is fun and they have to trust me with that. Im not just there to feed them and then hopefully they trust me. This works with every animal as long as the animal understands the rules of training very well and of course with a trainer who knows very well what makes the individual or specie trust you.

With the fur seals I think it’s a very fun way to go. I try to run everywhere without anything, pet them, then run go to places they never seen before etc. The response is great and they seem to trust me very much. I can not see what’s happening in their heads but at least it looks like it. To come back to it aren’t we saying we have a good relationship to quickly?


Shouldn’t we look further into it and actually test our relationships a bit to see how strong they really are before we say we have good relationships with our animals? Don’t get me wrong it all depends as well what you see as a relationship. I mean a relationship could be nothing more then you are their keeper and they know that you come at set times with their breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Trust is the main key in a strong relationship I believe.

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”


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