I want to ask you a question, are you an optimistic person or a pessimistic person? For some of you a question you know the answer too right away and for some of you a question of what do you mean. What it means is:

Optimism: One who usually expects a favourable outcome.

Pessimism: the state of mind of a person who always expects bad things to happen

The first thing we should do is all agree on what the meaning is for these word from a behavioural perspective. I would like to share my thoughts on this topic because I think its an important topic to think about.

There are plenty of us who think that they are number one or number two. But where does that come from? We aren’t born with it, we are shaped this way. One of us has more negative outcomes about their actions in their lives than others while the other one has more positive outcomes and so becomes an optimist. Let’s put this back to the animals we work with.

At this moment I’m pretty busy in our Welfare group we have in the zoo I work at. The main question for us is obviously if the welfare of our animals is good yes or no and how can we measure this. Click HERE for more info on that topic. I’ve looked up some presentations from a welfare conference held in the USA. Interesting and knowledgeable people who gave some great speeches. At the same I wrote some questions down that I want to discuss within our park. I think we need to discuss first what the expectation is from us to the animals. If the expectation is that the animal should thrive in the environment than we should apply all possible techniques and ideas to reach this goal and afterwards do the assessments to see if it actually works what we do. Regardless of this question I want to get back to the topic of this blog.

Do we want pessimistic or optimistic animals in our collections? And in how far should they be this way?

Pretty fair questions I would say what will bring up plenty of discussions. Asking this question to the team I work with gave us already plenty of discussion. The reason was that some animals are pessimistic by instinct for example antelopes and gazelles. Those animals prefer to flee instead of take the option of curiosity at least most of the time. This is their natural behavior but lets talk about the Zoo. We would like our animals to thrive in a Zoo setting. To be able to reach that goal does being a pessimism fit into this environment? I personally think for various welfare reasons we should have optimistic animals in the zoo we work at. The reason is simple, have a closer look at our animals through training them to come to us and do positive and proper body checks if needed. This means that the animals need to see us as something positive and a type of relationship should be established.

Another discussion popped up right after the one we had about both topics, but if the pessimism is a potential part of the animal’s instinct behavior shouldn’t we keep that? I personally think it will never go away but positive stress so to say is always good because not any specie lives without stress. The question is how it’s applied and how much at a time. The whole point is that we want to take care of them as best as we can. There for I prefer regarding the animal we work with to have optimistic animals.

Optimism might lead to confidence. Did you know that confidence might sometimes be dangerous for us? Through the confidence of the animal there is a chance that the animal could chase us around or give us a degree of aggression if you look at it from that perspective. The other day I saw a video of a small dog chasing some lions.

The confidence the animal has to be able to go for it must be pretty high. How come that some animals have so much confidence that they can beat stronger and bigger animals? Is this a learned behavior? Its interesting to me how this works because many animals who would lose a battle have such a high level of confidence that it seems like its part of their survival strategies. The first who attacks the first who wins maybe.. at least it seems like it.

Optimistic animals are great to work with, the pessimistic ones are the biggest challenge. I think we can say that we would like to have a perfect balance for both areas. It’s important to think about it from the animal’s viewpoint as far as we can. The Zoo is the Zoo and I love that place!

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”

Categories: Trainer Talk


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!


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.