In our everyday life we grow in what we do, our thoughts become different and our actions are being considered more as we get older. When I was younger I used to do a lot more reckless things what I wouldn’t do today. Opinions have changed due to experiences and so does your character. Your acceptance and maybe your curiosity goes to another point in your life where you wonder about different subjects as you used to wonder about. I’m nonstop asking the “Why” questions to myself and I can’t get tired of it. Some answers are easy made but some answers reflect to me with but “why can’t it be different?”. With the Job I have today I try to put this in practice on a daily base. Quite a while ago I had a talk with somebody from another Zoo who asked me, Does Kolmården Zoo have the highest animal training standard in Sweden? My answer was that we all do the same but we come from a different corner and that’s the difference. So, No we are not the highest standard. We just make ourselves different with the actions and techniques we take for the best care of our animals. This could maybe be an outcome of the thought “Why can’t it be different?”
There are many cultures within the animal community so to say, we have the elephant training culture that goes over thousands of years back if not more. There is the horse culture that goes a long way back as well. We have the marine mammal field what believe it or not seems to be a culture on its own. There are plenty more cultures where animals are used for a variety of reasons. Another culture that goes thousands of years back is the bird of prey culture. In many areas of the world birds of prey are used for hunting, display, edutainment and research. Let’s talk about this last culture for a bit…
At our Zoo we have quite some birds of prey, we house Harris Hawks, Falcons, Hornbills and Eagle Owls. In the High Season we have 3 shows on a daily base. We train all the birds for various behaviors such as nail & beak trims, selections and separations and box training to talk about some. I’ve been around birds for a little bit now but to be honest, birds are beautiful and all but they are just not my thing. They mysterious creatures, it might just be that I do not know anything about them what makes them hard for me to understand I guess. Within my own research I discovered that there are many different ways to train such birds, some of them I’m not familiar with. Except the way working with the Jesses. The jesses are leather straps around the legs of the birds. You can compare them with halters for horses or camels or with a dog’s leash really. Opinions might differ here. Anyway, when I break down the jesses in training theory they are used to hold the bird with you what means that you take the choice away for flying at this point. The jesses could be seen as forcing the animal to stay. Because if it wants to fly away it’s easy for the trainer to keep them to stay. The question here is right away, Is the bird thinking “ok than I will stay?” or does the bird have something like “I don’t have any choice and can’t do anything anymore I just stay?” The last one might refer to learned helplessness.
Learned Helplessness – Has been used by experimental psychologists to describe a loss of responsiveness to stimuli after prolonged exposures in which animal cannot escape an aversive stimuli or gain satisfaction in obtaining a desirable one (Overmier, 2002). “The crux of learned helplessness is that when one’s efforts at control repeatedly fail, not only does one cease trying to cause that particular outcome (helplessness), but one may also actually fail to exert control in some new situation in which control is possible.” (Fiske & Taylor, 2008). Some have considered learned helplessness as an adaptive process, but Webster (2005) suggests rather than adaptive, it is a state of psychological exhaustion; the animal has given up or is hopeless. – ABMA 2017
However we think about it from all the angles and I hear you thinking… Peter you do not understand the way cultural falconering works. Well you know what this is not the point. We are talking about the training techniques used where we could ask the question that pops up in my mind all the time “Why can’t it be different?”.
In the video you can see 3 trainers present. 2 with birds and 1 is a receiving trainer. The first thing that happens is that a birds flies to another position. The trainer didn’t ask the bird to do so and there for the bird is incorrect. The bird will discover this quickly enough because the trainer completely ignores the bird. The reaction the bird gives is flying back to its trainer. The animal is thinking on its own. In the whole training session the trainer fixes her problem right away. The challenge here is that 2 birds are present so the animals have to have double attention. Another great session by our trainers.
The Team at Kolmården has a variety of experiences from working with dolphins to hoofstock and so on. They have a great ability to read the animals they work with what helps in the progression over time. I come there with pleasure, because every time I pop by they surprise me what they are able to do with their birds. A little bit over a year ago the first steps were taken. We decided to take the jesses away with the animals we could. The theory behind the idea was if the bird wants to go the bird will go. If the bird wants to leave you we have to ask ourselves do we give enough reasoning for the bird to stay? Is the balance to stay with us to low and the distractions/ variety to high on the other side? If so, we should work on the animals reasoning. How can we do this? Well there is something called the balance of reinforcement, if the bird stays and the reinforcement value is higher to stay the motivation will be higher as well. If we can vary with our reinforcement…. “I hear you thinking, birds of prey only eat…” and then the reinforcement I mean the amount and the type what means even with 3 different kinds of meat you can vary a whole lot. If we understand the moments we should vary the bird should stay with us. So here we go… The bird team has such success with their animals that we train them with whistles and motivation strategies what will help the birds think on their own. We just shape their choice by going the direction we want them to by giving them the encouragement and reasoning through the variety and amount of reinforcement.
As many other animals, we started to see differences in our birds for example one of the Eagle Owls (Photo Above) started to think more and guess what we wanted from her. Beautiful to see. Another reason and thought we had when we took the jesses away was one that goes a couple years back. We have a Harris Hawk named Keno (photo). One day when the keepers came in they discovered that Keno had broken her foot. To have a better look and take her through a recovery we had to take the jesses of, that’s where we saw something remarkable or was it? Within the recovery time the trainers discovered that the animal was more comfortable without the jesses around her feet as before and there for stayed longer with you without problems. The reason? What I think is that the bird had the choice to fly away at any time. There for the bird stayed longer and was more comfortably with us. We decided to take this step with the others and actually had the same response.
Evolving techniques is an important quest talking about cultures. I mean we should look more often into “Why can’t it be different” with all the respect how it has been because we learned a lot on the way. This experience had me looking different to the birds. We even get visitors asking us how are the birds not flying away? It’s fun to see how the trainers cope with the changes and how well they are doing. We are progressing pretty fast to a point where we soon can take our next steps in our training with the birds.
Why can’t it be different?
“Thinking Outside the Box”