Over the time of my career I have learned a million different things and experienced some incredible moments with the animals I had the privilege to work with. As always seeking for knowledge Im questioning myself many different questions over the day when teaching trainers and animals of all different species. I discovered in a early stage that the energy we bring with us as people can reflect to other persons right away. This is similar to animals. It’s a funny mimicking procedure I would say. We actually do it all the time. When we are having conversations with one another we slowly get into taking the same postures as the other one has.

The weird person I am I tested such an observation ones. To be honest you might have done this as well. The only thing I did was stop walking and looking into a tree, just to see how many people passed me and looked in the tree as well. Funny isn’t it? At the end we are pack animals with a strong social ability.

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The observation from others to one another is an interesting cause like you saw in the previous video. Reflecting to animals who do the exact same thing. I mean Apes learn from each other using tools all the time by trying what the other one is doing. Observing each other is very important but it can cause some problems as well. In a test done by Frans de Waal you can see the unfairness and the effect it has between 2 capuchin monkeys. One animal observes the other what the animal receives as reinforcement compared to himself. He values the reinforcer what the other one receives as higher reinforcer as what he gets. A strong observation from the animal:

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“The act or art of copying or imitating closely; mimicking” – Dictionary.com

Mimicry starts with observing each other, I remember working at Marineland France where we had to test the copying behaviour between the killer whales. We thought them to copy the behaviour the other animal was doing. So when we asked a dance we gave the other animal next to him the signal of copy and he would dance as well. To take away the “look at the other trainers signal” excuse we added a big wooden board in between the 2 trainers and they positioned themselves in a way the animal from the other person couldn’t see the trainer. The cool part was that we had at one point an animal who knew vocals that the other one didn’t know, we asked such a vocal and asked the animal who didn’t know this behaviour to copy and to our surprise the animal who had to copy tried very hard to see how to make this vocal.

Dolphin Research Center did such a research as well but then with dolphins blind folded. They would give the signal copy the other animal then blind fold the animal and ask animal 2 to do a behaviour. With their echolocation they could copy the behaviour animal 2 was doing.

Mimicry happens in many different species. At the Apehouse in Kolmården we use Mimicry between chimpanzee and trainer to teach various body parts. This works very well and is not a new strategy but very helpful for the trainers. The same happened with our Gibbons when we asked our male to come to us and go into another box. The female with her baby became curious enough to follow the male. This gave us a chance of reinforcement for the skittish mother with her baby. A lot of times we use mimicry without even knowing it. A baby learns a lot on the way being with the mother. What means the baby is observing and mimicking mom. When mom puts something in her mouth the baby will as well. With the Gibbons we seen this going the other way around afterwards.


The baby is becoming more curious and interested in us what makes the mom more calm also. The mom wants to be close to the baby what gives us a chance to reinforce her as well. When working with killer whales we actually used this for blood positions. We would ask the mother to give the tail to us and after we asked the baby while playing with her to get into the same position. It was a lot easier when mom was already in this position as when we only asked the baby to do this. This is just an example how it works.

The other day I was working with our dolphins, sometimes it happens when the animal mixes up signals with behaviours due to wrong bridges, balance of reinforcement or just straight up miscommunication. The animal would mix up a free bow with a Spinbow and a Front flip. We decided to ask the spinbow first and ended up using targets and an iceball for positioning but we got it. We didn’t want to reinforce a lot because if we would we had to reinforce the free bow even more now this was the goal. So we started with the Spinbow, than trained a complete other behaviour. After this we positioned her at the other side of the exhibit between 2 groups. I asked to on of the trainer to ask one free bow with his animal so the animal who has discrimination problems could see what was happening. So she did, the animal she had did a great free bow. After this moment I asked the other trainer who had 3 animal in control to do the same. Remember the animal who had problems is in the middle of both teams. So she asked and they did a beautifull free bow all together. Right after we asked the animal who has discrimination probems to do a free bow as well. Guess what happened? SHE DID IT!!! I believe through the help of the others and the observation of this animal we had the success we needed.

Mimicry can be a huge help in animal training but do not forget you will not have a history of approximations if you only use mimicry. There is only a history of copying another animal so if the behaviour breaks down you might have a harder time training the behaviour back.

Most of the time we would use mimicry in the last 20% of the behaviour where the position has to be shaped or the highed a little better. We do this by just asking the behaviour with another animal who already knows it. At this point the animal who’s new with it knows the signal as well.

Mimicry is a fine art and you have to know the good and bad parts about it. It’s the art of knowing when to use it.


Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”


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