ANIMALS AND TRAINING HAVE BEEN MY ENTIRE LIFE WORK
I started working with animals as a young man. This turned into a profession that has spanned over 40 years and has taken me to 4 continents on the globe.
I have worked in thirty zoos, eight Safari parks and eleven circuses as a consultant, educator, entertainer, and keeper of animals. I have owned many exotic and domestic animals including elephants, dogs, cats, camels, horses, birds and fish. I was fortunate to learn Operant Conditioning early on in my career. At the start, I was enlisted to train a bird show for Kings Dominion, a large amusement entertainment park just north of Richmond, Virginia. I was sent to Animal Behavior Enterprises, a privately held company owned by Keller Breland and Marion Bailey to learn the fundementals of operant conditioning. I applied these techniques daily, training 15 hours a day, and my first bird show was ready in eight weeks. This later led me to a position in the animal training center of Busch Gardens, Tampa. I was hired to assist in the training of the new animal shows for all the open parks around the country.
At Busch Gardens, I was very lucky to have also been exposed to many experienced animal trainers and elephant men who had decided to get off the road and work their final days handling animals and training shows.
It was then when my education took off. A typical day had me handling baboons, chimps, birds of prey, and macaws. My afternoons were also busy filled with elephants and training camels while lending a hand and moving props for the elephant acts. From dawn to dusk I was actively learning and soaking up the experiences of both these older showmen and the new age animal behavioralists in the training center.
From there, I went on to work with the top elephant trainers in America. Elephants always posed new challenges not only because of their size but also because of the huge brain power they possess. To me, out of all of the four legged land animals, I believe the elephant is the smartest and the most challenging to work with. In the early 80's, Asian Elephants became an endangered species. At that time, I did not know it would cause an influx of African Elephants to North America. African Elephants were not a threatened species and for many years we brought African Elephants into this country by the dozens.
I really had desired to become a competent trainer and it was African Elephants that helped me achieve and fulfill my destiny. African Elephants had been displayed in zoos and circuses for many years but Asian Elephants were considered the norm and more reliable. African Elephants, with no real history of domestication were considered flighty and unpredictable.
My observations and applications of Operant Conditioning that I learned early on was about to really pay off. African Elephants in my estimation were certainly no less intelligent than their Asian cousins. They simply were wild and therefore were fearful. This fear made them resistant to all stimulus in their enviorment, including man. I knew it was the fear that must be dealt with, and Operant Conditioning was the only real science that I knew that would address this. The process of eliminating fear is known as desensitization, meaning to render one less fearful to external stimulus. This is done through progressive exposure to stimulus that is percieved as fearful and by reinforcing the correct or acceptable responses. You cannot force or coerce fear from any animal. If you use physical coercion you will only magnify the fear and work against your intended goals of getting a reliable, relaxed, and managable animal or elephant.
Fear can be an obstacle to any trainer. Whether you train exotic or domestic animals, fear of varying degrees must be overcome in order to get " inside the animals head", as we trainers like to say. If it were not for fear, any horse could be ridden by simply getting on its' back. Of course, it would take time to educate the horse for the style of riding you prefer or the duty it would be asked to carry out, but with fear eliminated the horse could be easily mounted by a rider. If fear was not an issue, a wild bird of prey could be set on the arm of a man without it trying to fly off. Dogs would not submit or attack another dog, if fear were not an issue. Even man would achieve loftier goals if fear was not a hurdle to him.
Behavioral Modification is the key to shaping our lives and the behavior of out pets. I have found that by using the method of Operant Conditioning one can get the maximum and most beneficial results. By dealing succesfully with the largest and most intellegent land mammal on this earth, I was able to prove that these methods work well when used consistently and in a compassionate manner.