"Of Mice and Mutts: IV."

SeaWorld Is Giving Its Star Performers a Raw Deal.

If Conditioning Is a Business Transaction, Orcas Are Getting Screwed.

The Overall Ineffectiveness of Operant Conditioning

It’s been three weeks since 40-year old animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed at SeaWorld by Tilikum, one of the orcas she worked with. It’s taken me a while to process what I think this means in terms of my usual subject, dog training. I’m not an expert on dolphins or killer whales, though I do know that orcas are one of only three types of mammal that routinely hunt large, dangerous prey (the others are wolves and human beings). So I’ll try to confine my remarks to what I think is relevant: the overall ineffectiveness of operant conditioning when it comes to asking an animal of any kind to suppress its instinctive urges, needs, and desires.

In my view, most of the commentary (cover-up) on this tragedy has missed the point. Thad Lacinak, a former head trainer at SeaWorld, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he blamed Tilikum’s trainer, Dawn Brancheau, saying she made a mistake by letting her ponytail drift in the water in front of him. This idea was echoed in an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Whale May Have Seen Ponytail as Toy.” In that article, Lacinak was quoted as saying, “[The ponytail] was a novel item in the water, and he grabbed hold of it, not necessarily in an aggressive way. He’s like: ‘I’m going to play with you.’”

I find this disingenuous to say the least. On the one hand you have these highly intelligent animals, capable of extremely precise behaviors, not only in terms of the tricks they’re able to perform at amusement parks, but in how they interact with one another in the wild, particularly while playing or hunting. On the other, we’re supposed to believe that such an animal is capable of mistaking part of the human anatomy for a toy? What toys could they possibly be using that could be so easily mistaken for a ponytail?

The idea that Tilikum was “just playing” also contradicts eyewitness accounts of people who actually saw the attack in person (Lacinak didn’t). One witness said the orca was “thrashing her [Brancheau] around pretty good. It was violent.” Another said, “He shook her violently.” This particular witness had taken her children to SeaWorld numerous times, had seen the shows performed over and over, and knew Tilikum by sight. She had a clear sense of his usual behavior and personality, so it’s not as if she couldn’t tell the difference between playfulness and violent aggression.

Plus all the whales were clearly agitated and upset on the day of the attack. The trainers had to cancel some of the scheduled performances because, as they told park visitors, “the whales were not cooperating.” If that’s the case, this means that either they were very sick or that something very important was missing in the way that they’d been trained, particularly since in their native habitat, orcas are one of the most cooperative species on the planet, ranking just behind dogs and humans.

Karen Pryor, who’s a key figurehead in the “positive” training movement for dogs, and who once trained dolphins for a living, defended SeaWorld’s training practices. “[The trainers at SeaWorld] have sophisticated training based on sound scientific principles.” Pryor went on to say, “That kind of animal is bound to be unpredictable.”

So Pryor is not blaming Dawn Brancheau, or SeaWorld’s training practices; she’s blaming Tilikum, because he’s unpredictable.

What Gold Standard?

On Pryor’s website, the following message was posted. “Dolphins and [killer] whales are the first to be kept in captivity to be trained by truly modern, force-free methods as opposed to avoidance training or the traditional ‘do as I say or else’ way. Sea World has mastered ways of training without using fear or force, setting what we believe to be the gold standard for humane and intelligent training.”

This is the kind of blind-faith, behavioral science propaganda that really gets me steamed. It always comes down to the moral superiority of operant conditioning over traditional methods, rather than oc’s actual effectiveness in the crunch. “Yes,” they’re saying, “operant conditioning didn’t work with Tilikum, and yes, someone got killed, but we’re still the ‘gold standard.’”

And what exactly is this “gold standard” that failed Dawn and Tilikum?

In another article, this one in the Milford Daily News, Pryor compared operant conditioning to a business transaction, saying the trainer trades something the animal wants—such as food, praise, a head rub, or a toy—for a behavior the trainer wants the animal to produce. Pryor says this mimics “the way animals learn, out in nature.”

That’s the problem. Operant conditioning is not based on the way animals learn, in nature. It’s a synthetic version of learning, based on the way animals learn and behave in a laboratory setting.

And that’s just half the problem. The other half is that if learning really is like a business transaction, then the orcas (and other animals, like pet dogs) are getting a raw deal. Anyone who actually thought about this for more than half-a-second would know that there is no way that doing tricks for a pailful of fish or a head rub could ever hope to equal—in terms of an orca’s natural energy exchange with the environment—the process of traveling roughly 500 miles a week, through open water, to chase and kill prey animals (gray, baleen, and, rarely, sperm whales), that may be more than three times their own size.

So the “gold standard” used to teach these animals tricks is simply not geared toward releasing the amounts of energy these huge predators need to release daily in order to feel satisfied and relaxed. That’s why operant conditioning methods can’t help but fail in the crunch, as they did last month in Orlando.

Critically Ineffective Methods

Evolutionary biologist Ray Coppinger, when discussing the flaws inherent to the dominance paradigm, as applied to pet dogs, said that even though the alpha theory held prominence within the scientific community for a very long time, “No one really believed in it. The data wasn’t there.”

Here we have the opposite. The clinical data is overwhelmingly on the side of operant conditioning. And yet time after time it proves itself to be critically ineffective, and in some cases inhumane.

In a perfect world, where operant conditioning was really effective, all the time with all species, behavioral scientists wouldn’t need to solve behavioral problems in dogs by prescribing drugs. And no dog owner would be told by their +R trainer, that whenever their dog’s prey drive prevents him from obeying, all they have to do is “Up the value of your treats!” And in this perfect world I’m wishing for, Dawn Brancheau might still be alive. From all reports, and from looking at the footage of her working with the animals she trained, this was an intelligent, energetic, caring, and dedicated animal lover. The only thing she did wrong was to trust in and believe the hype about behavioral science.

It’s time not only to re-think the advisability of keeping marine mammals in small tanks and forcing them to perform, we need to start asking some hard questions about how effective behavioral science really is. Let’s look at animal behavior in the way Pryor suggests, as a business transaction. Once we do, we’ll see that for an animal that routinely hunts animals three times its own size, out in the open water, the orcas are getting a really bad bargain when all they’re given to do with their energy each day is a few tricks for a bucket of chum.

They need something more. That’s what Tilikum was trying to tell us. It’s a shame that Dawn Brancheau, along with her friends and family, had to suffer in order for that message to be sent. But if this tragedy is to have any meaning, we’d better stop a moment and listen to what he has to say.


“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.