At this point I’m working with animals for my 13th year. It has been quite a ride and learned a lot on the way. Even today I learn new things all the time, or about people or about the animals we work with. In the blog I would like to talk about the most dangerous part with working animals and believe it or not its not that lion or that elephant you work with.

Imagine you have a sales job. Your job is selling phones, phone contracts, accessories etc. You are that person that wants to reach every target or even more. You are very successful in what you do and keep have the number 1 place in the company. Everything works out for you and you seem to grow fast. Not having failures and a team that’s likes you, you feel like needing some more challenges.  After 3 years you decide to move on because you think you can’t learn more at the place you are. You find a company that sees your achievement and decides to take you in. Because you are so confident and believe in yourself you jump in.

Than it happens you think you can and you believe in yourself so much that you fail completely and you get fired. This actually happens failry often, this person is complacent with his current situation. He gets used to how good he is and is not aware of changing it. He gets to comfortable with this and thinks he can rule the world. That part made him fail.

Complacency: Being overly satisfied or comfortable with an existing situation or condition.

I have worked with many different animals, keeping in mind everything that anything and everything could happen at any time you are aware of your environment. I got to practise this more with working walruses where we talked about knowing your exits and where you are. A walrus is strong, dangerous at times and believe it or not pretty fast. Knowing where you are at any time is pretty important. I learned that you need to pay attention at all times and make sure your animal is not getting frustrated with you.

After moving to another country where I worked with killer whales, this thought was put in place right away. They kept on telling me you only have one chance. What basically means the animals are very strong and can be aggressive like any other animals. Make sure you know the safety rules around the exhibits and the precursors of potential aggression. Better be safe than sorry! Whenever I thought I don’t trust the animal at this point I would take a step back. Just in case. It’s very important not to become complacent in the situation with the animals because that the moment it can happen. Remember you only have one chance. This experience gave me the skill of awareness. Be aware of your reinforcement, your animal, what the other trainers are doing or where they are or even when other trainers reinforce their animals etc. All the tiny things that could give the animal a reason to reach out at you or the submissive animal in the same exhibit. This awareness of the environment gave me a lot of skill for the next years to come and I’m great full to have this.

Every animal comes with their own precursers and aggressive behaviour. An elk fights with his front legs and his antlers, a bear just grabs you with his claws and teeth, and a rhino will put you on his horns. Its up to us as Animal Trainers to understand the natural behaviour of the species we work with. Animals are dangerous and they will always be. When we start to build relationships and after a couple months we see the outcome we become more comfortable. We think we know the animal and we think the animal would never do such thing. This is one of the bigger problems in animal keeping I think. We think to much and we put to much affection towards the animals we work with but put it straight… the animals mostly get their rewards after interacting with you. If they don’t interact the way you ask them to we would withhold their food and reinforce them in another session differently. Our relationship isn’t that strong but just because we bring food we think so… this is where the accidents happen. Getting to comfortable with the animal because WE think the animal would never do such a thing.

When Im working with the 10+ year experienced elephant trainers we talk about this many times. They explained me that many problems come from complacency. Some will argue that animals can make a mistake by accidently putting their body against the wall with you in between and so on although the question is, are the animals doing this by accident? I know very well that dolphins and killer whales are very but very skilled with their flukes. I don’t think accidents happen for no reason. Awareness of the environment is important.

Always stay ahead of the game! You know that some fights between animals are caused by the trainers? Because we didn’t look at each other, we missed the early signs, or we thought “its not that type of animal” .

We should never be complacent of what animals are able to do. Awareness’ of yourself, the environment and others will help you to be more successful in you training.

Peter Giljam

Thinking Outside the Zoo



Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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