Cover Photo: Female chimp, Medina, is photographed at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Lake Victoria, Uganda. She is fond of clapping and swinging her hands when asking for food or anything of her interest and also complains when given less food. Whenever she sees anything from a point where she cannot reach, she will always clap while whimpering at any person nearby to get it for her. She plays a lot in water and rarely climbs trees. In the evening she prefers nesting on the floor than in the hammock. 03/15 Julia Cumes/IFAW From the start of our lives decision making becomes part of what we do. Maybe when we are very very young we do not realize this part of what we do yet but decisions are being made. A very young child decides before it points at a toy it wants. Our whole life really depends on making the “right” decisions for ourselves. Some people have an easier time with this than others. What would the reason be? How laid back you are with the outcome of the decision or how much people care about a potential bad outcome? With the social media culture we are in today we have to make many more choices as many years ago. A friend of me told me once, today the younger people have so many more choices to make as ever before. For example, Shall I post this online yes or no? Shall I make a selfie yes or no? Do I have enough likes yes or no etc etc. Their decision to make a change depends on these type of thoughts all the time.

Can I just decide to make both my passion?

When you observe the animals you take care of you will quickly discover that animals make decisions all the time as well. If they are conscious of their decisions is the question and one might say “is it a decision if you are not conscious of it?” Or do we need to put the choice the animal made in another category? Would the animal decide because its conscious about the outcome it might have? If that’s the case it’s a planned decision. I remember reading a part in a book from Frans De Waal about a story of a small chimpanzee.

In an exhibit the zookeepers had added some tires around a big log what had a goal to enact foraging behaviour. Like every other day the exhibit has to be cleaned and rearanged. After cleaning the exhibit water has stayed in one of the tires the keepers had put. The zookeepers had let the animals back into the exhibit. A while after one of the young females got curious about the tires and decided to have a look. One of the tires was filled with water while the others weren’t. The young female tried to take the tires of to reach the one it wanted. One of her aunts was watching carefully looking at how her niece tried to solve this problem. The young female tried and tried without success. The aunt observed what was going on and acted. The aunt took off the tires and gave the one the young female wanted. After reading this story I thought the aunt most likely decided with an outcome it was conscious off. The aunt saw another one of the family struggling to reach what it wanted, the aunt must have thought I need to hep this female… but why? There wasn’t anything in there for her.. or was is part of building relationships? Another story I read in another book was about gorillas. The point they made was that gorillas aren’t asking themselves why am I who I am. Or do they? We will never know. It was an interesting read because it made me think that us humans ask ourselves many questions about our own existents and some of us decide according to those thoughts. It seems like gorillas and other animals’ live day by day and more in the moment as us humans do. We are very busy with ourselves and how the world looks at us.

Who is in for trying? Are you sure?

In animal training we most of the time guess the outcome of our choices and decide accordingly. Our actions are focussed on the most success possible for both animal and trainer. This gives us a better understanding to animal behavior. When I do this that will happen and when I do this this will happen. Its an art to guess the outcome. You need to know the animal, the group structure, and the tiniest behavioural patterns to place your choices. The goal is to have a successful choice that reaches by observation above 75%. Where I got this percentage from? I discovered by training animals in group formations that under 75% is not enough. Unless you really don’t have a choice what almost doesn’t really exist.

My passion started with working with marine mammals. After working with cetaceans I discovered that decision making isn’t always about right or wrong. We try to guess the outcome and by knowing the individuals and how the social group functions that day we can come very close to reality with our guessing. I’ve been in situations that making either 1 decision or the other the outcome might be not good for both parties but at this point I always asked myself what is worse at the end or when do I lose most? That’s what I would depend my decision on. At the end we want as much success for the animals as you can.

As we know we can’t control everything and we should accept that. At this point I work more with people than with animals what is for me pretty fascinating. The reason is, how behavior of people works. Some are very confident in deciding towards the animals while others can’t make one because they are too afraid about if they are wrong. Insecure trainers work in a way where they are very afraid applying big approximations or fixing a problem because of the fixation of a negative outcome. Trainers who are very confident will make decisions a lot easier.

The whole idea I’m trying to pass through is the fact that regardless of what’s happening we NEED to make a decision. Its better to make a wrong decision 100% instead of a 50/50 one. The thought behind this is that we want to be black and white to the animal we work with. If we end up in the grey area the situation could become dangerous for us. Its always better to do something with confidence. Afterwards we talk with the team and see what better choices could have been and what we could do next time a similar scenario occurs.

Remember this blog? Success Starts With Observation; Antecedent Arrangement

Decision making is a forgotten art. It depends on the skillset of the trainer and how well the trainer knows the individual animal or how well it can read the situation. The best tip I can give you is try to read your animal, feel what he or she feels and discover how the social group works and what the typical behaviours are for such animals. We need to know how they play, with who they play but also who they do not like, or who they fight with most. We need to know where they prefer to be and who the dominant and the submissive animals are.

If you have spare time… just observe the behaviour of the animals you work with. One person I met in my career told me this once and my life changed!


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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