I was only 11 years old when my mom asked me what I wanted to do. I saw a flyer from a school with a photo of rabbit on it and thought, you know what I want to work with animals. My mom was surprised because we didn’t have any animals at home. Where did he got his feeling from animals from my mom must have wondered.
A year later while being at this practical school to learn to work with animals I opened an encyclopaedia with dolphins. Directly something sparked up in me. Orcas those are the species I want to work with! These powerful beautiful magnificent animals that had something mysterious. While my journey to reach this goal already started when I was 12, I only reached this goal in 2012 when I was 26 years of age.
I moved from Canada to Tenerife where I worked at a beautiful park called Loro Parque. A nice park on the northern green side on the island of Tenerife. This was the first time I was privileged to look into the eyes of these beautiful animals. Little did I know that my life would completely change afterwards.
Zoo Animal Training
Looking back at my time with orcas I’ve learned that nothing is impossible. I’ve learned some valuable lesson regarding the intelligence of species. In the past years I’ve decided to use behaviour modification as a simple comparable line between species. If you train a chimpanzee with a social structure, an elephant, a dolphin or even a fallow deer the principles are exactly the same. What I learned training with the orcas that managing a social structure is difficult but with tips and tricks, detailed observation and communication between trainers that you can reach a lot of great goals.
This is exactly what Zoospensefull is all about. We use knowledge from different fields who work with different species and we try to take everything with us to show the possibilities with other animals. My orca time has a huge effect on building successful behaviour modification programs across zoological institutions around the world.
Using the experience I’ve build up has helped me solving many challenges along the way. The orcas have helped me to think outside the box in training animals. They’ve thought me that there is more about species intelligence. They’ve thought me to have respect for nature and respect everything in it.
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Till the moment I started in Tenerife I had worked for 7 years with pinnipeds such as sea lions, seals and walruses. I’ve trained many different behaviours with pinnipeds ranging from medical behaviours to high energy behaviours to fun show behaviours, but I was never really thinking about deliberately building relationships. I just never had put relationship session in the programs I worked at.
Only after 3 months I was allowed to work together with one of these powerful animals. In these 3 months I had to learn to know the animal and how to build a relationship. I remember one trainer telling me “Peter there are times when you learn more by observing your animals in their time instead of training them” which has changed my mind since. Observing what animals seem to enjoy, how they play with each other, and their relationship between one another teaches you so much about life. Knowing what this trainer told me I discovered the true meaning of a relationship.
At this moment I was lucky enough to work with a deaf killer whale called Morgan. A beautiful, curious, playful intelligent young female. She enjoyed learning new things but only from people that she could properly communicate with. She was not able to hear the frequency of sounds like any other orca which made communication very challenging. We used a hand signal as marker to teach her various behaviour that were fun but most importantly for her own care.
She either liked you or not seemed to be her thing. The best times we had was when we played with different toys, when we ran around or when we did these slow relaxing rubdown sessions. I learned the value of building relationships while training animals.
In the early 60s the well known Karen Pryor started Sea Life park in Hawaii. Through trial and error, great observation skills and the curiosity to read she became a one of a kind personality in the training world. Her story is written in the book “lads before the wind”. This book till today still has a huge impact on the training strategies I use in different programs. She took what she learned in the 80s to build Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training Company. Which became very successful as of today. I had to think about her very often because of her stories where she had to figure out these dolphins she had and how she could have an effect on the behaviour of these amazing individuals.
At the Orca Stadium in Tenerife I learned that skills such as variability in reinforcement, timing of the marker, placement of reinforcement and social dynamics are so important when we train these massive animals. I became more detailed in the timing of my marker and the training techniques I had to apply. Especially training Morgan, because she couldn’t hear our marker signal. We used a hand signal for her instead but this signal never had the same timing in comparison to the short high pitched whistle. Connected to this hand signal the use of reinforcement placement was an important part of her training. Teaching her to front flip was a huge challenge but through placing the reinforcement behind her made her tuck her head better to reach the criteria we were looking for. This is just on of the examples where I learned what placement of reinforcement does.
I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my Orca experience and especially what I’ve learned from Morgan. Not only as a trainer but also in my personal life.
Effect of the group to your session
I learned that social dynamics are such a huge part of the lives of animals and not just orcas but any social animal. Other group members can make or break the session you have with an individual. Observations like explained previously and figuring out the communication signals between the animals before the session, in the session, and after the session has provided me with information I needed for the future. It gave me a lot more skills as I thought I would get elsewhere. Who can eat first or last, which orca is able to work together with another orca, swimming patterns, defending an area, resource guarding were all part of how such a structure worked which had a huge impact on the success in our session considered properly. If there was a discussion in the morning between individual orcas and ended up in a fight you had to change your day completely and you would be busy all day long to help the individuals to get along again to make progress as a whole. All members would be effected if there would be a discussion like this in the habitat.
In comparison to sea lions that would just “bark, bark, fight fight” and thats it, no problems after. Orcas are different, therefore as some people say “you dominate them”, this is impossible. To work with these animals there needs to be mutual respect, teamwork and a respectful relationship otherwise you are nowhere.
Maintain behaviour to your best capacity
Behaviours that we condition are never finished. We have to maintain these behaviour to the criteria we decided to be. Each and every day we did our best to maintain the behaviours, plus train new behaviours to the orcas. We would plan new and creative ways to reinforce the animals to keep the criteria as good as it could be. Through the energy of the trainer, the predictable patterns we created, and the different prepared reinforcers we could give we created a curious motivation. This kept the criteria of behaviours very high. The best part was that we did a variety of different sessions to maintain all aspects of what was needed to give the animals the best fulfilling lives. This system came from SeaWorld and the session organisation was called HELPRS.
For each orca we planned these sessions during the day to keep the variability as high as we could and to maintain all aspects of our interactions and behaviours as best as we could. My favourite… planning reinforcement to after see the surprise in the eyes of the animals!
Advanced training is being good at foundation
Ken Ramirez has said this very well. While working together with these magnificent animals it is a necessity to focus on foundation behaviours. Without those your program literally falls apart. Sessions such as gating sessions, target sessions, teamwork sessions are all part of maintaining strong foundation. Focussing on operant conditioning and the emphasis of positive reinforcement as a base helps reach this goal.
Understanding which behaviours has to be maintained well allows you to train on a higher levels. We’ve always focussed on the matter that the environment decides if a behaviour is easy even though the animal has done this behaviour for years previously. The environment has a huge effect on new and current behaviour they know. Therefore these different session to keep foundation behaviours on a high level is such a big part of a successful program like the program at Loro Parque in Tenerife.
The strength of a team
Not only did I learn a lot from the orcas but learning how to work in a team while training these animals is another ball game. I remember the day when I took my first steps through gates of the facility one trainer, Jose was his name, saying to me “Peter what is important to know is, you only have one chance” back then I didn’t really know what he meant so I asked. He explained me, “Peter these animals are powerful, one mistake might cost your life”. I looked him in the eyes and thought hmm alright. Only 1,5 years later when I decided to go to another facility I really understood what he meant back then. When you are working together with such powerful and intelligent animals a strong team is necessary. A team that understands each others importance. A team that looks out for you because they might be the one that will safe you if something happens.
The biggest thing I learned was not having tunnel vision. Always be aware of what is happening to everybody in the area. If they are training animals or not. You have to know what’s going on for your safety, their safety and the animals safety. Im not talking about micromanaging, Im talking about keep yourself up to date and know what’s going on. Look around you when you train an individual that is in the same habitat where another trainer is training as well. Communication and observation is one of the most important things I’ve learned to become the trainer I am today. Taking this information with me to other species has helped me excel in my own training skills.
Working together with these animals made me more creative, open minded and respectful to animals. They have made me a better human being. They made me understand animals on a whole different level.