Saturday, June 21, 2008

The makings of an animal trainer

Today I participated in a summer tradition: I went to the zoo with my mom.

Some of my earliest and dearest memories are of me and my mom at the zoo. When I was very young, my older sister participated in zoo camp, a program that allows kids to follow around zookeepers and go behind the scenes of the zoo before it opens. The three of us entered the quiet zoo in the gentle glow of summer mornings. After Amy was off with her zoo camp group, mom and I explored the zoo we had all to ourselves. Even though I didn't get to go behind the scenes or work with the animals like Amy, I was thrilled that I was able to see the animals before anyone else did.

Though we had free reign of the entire zoo, I usually led my mom to the most exciting exhibit, the beluga whales. They are my favorite exhibit to this day. I'm not sure I can pinpoint what exactly it is about them that I like. Perhaps it's the way their mouths curve up slightly at the corners, resembling a friendly smile. Maybe it's that they're white, like holy things. But I think it's that the beluga exhibit provides an intimacy that other exhibits don't. I think I've been closer to the belugas than any other zoo animal. (Well, besides the goats in the petting zoo, but that doesn't count.) They swim up to the underwater glass, their blubber gliding across my outstretched palm. How far apart are we? An inch? Two inches? Regardless, they are right there looking at me with their obsidian eyes as they gracefully sweep by.

We always stayed for the beluga "keeper talks," where the zookeepers come out and talk about the whales and how they train them. I paid careful attention to the hand signals the keepers used to tell the whales what behaviors to perform, so that when I had my chance to see the belugas through the underwater glass, I could communicate with the whales on my own. I stood waiting at the glass, signaling the whales to come to me. And when they did, I swore it was because they were responding to me. I thought I was talking to the whales. When the zoo was open and other children started lining up at the glass, they would all chatter to their parents while I stood quietly moving my hands, summoning my amiable aquatic friends.

I had no idea then that when I got older I would be using the same principles of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning the zookeepers use. I don't work at the zoo, and I don't train beluga whales, but I am able to form a rewarding relationship with dogs. When I'm working with them, I'm able to replicate that childhood thrill of communicating with an animal. It's so rewarding to watch them learn, and to be able to look them in the eye and connect.

I never actually went to zoo camp. I guess by the time I was old enough, they had stopped the program or something. Maybe if I had gone I would be a zookeeper today. Regardless, I am a dog person through and through, and I continue to enjoy relationships with animals through my two adorable and adoring (if not always obedient) Cavaliers.