Sunday, January 11, 2009

Witch Doctors & Modern Medicine

I have been half following a thread on another circus blog for a couple weeks. It started as an innocent trip to the zoo, and has now become a debate on the emotions of animals. I know.....what is there to debate...
The alleged facts brought to the table come from an article posted in a newspaper about a book written by Jonathan Balcombe named "Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good". I have since ordered the book (got it at a steal for $5.39 used from amazon) only so I can make it my life's work to discredit this nonsense.

Five years ago behaviorist and animal-rights activist Dr. Jonathan Balcombe stood on a Virginia hotel balcony watching two crows intimately groom each other in the comfort of an abandoned billboard. He felt that the birds liked what they were doing, even if engaged in a natural, beneficial act, such as picking parasites off the other's feathers. That moment changed the way he would view animals forever.

If this was his motivation for writing the book....It shouldn't take long to discredit it. This is called STIMULUS-RESPONSE moron!!! It was noted a century or so back in time.

What this debate has actually taught me is that animal training is a science, and has been refined over the years with the help of people who actually studied Animal Behavior. Or.. should I say, animal training in alot of fields besides the Circus. Yes folks, we are but Witchdoctors surrounded by heart surgeons now. Marine Mammal trainers, Professional Horse trainers, Zoo Keepers, they spent their time writing down facts and looking for answers, while we were cutting up jack pots and telling each other how great we were and how bad everyone else was. This does not apply, obviously, to all circus trainers (there are some greats who truly understood animal thought process) but alot. The sad part of this is we had a head start on most other forms of training. We should be ashamed we are not further ahead now! Years of telling the next person "stand here and do this with the whip, and the horse will do this" instead of knowing and explaining the "why" the horse is doing what it is doing. I swear I am starting to think Circus started believing its own hype when it comes to animal training. Put away the hack saws please, and read a book on how to use a scalpel correctly.

You watch every move, call it sleight of hand,
You know it's what I do and never what I am,
It started on the street with cards and dollar bills,
Shuffling my feet, I never could be still

J. Isbell


B.E.Trumble said...

Jonathan Balcombe's greatest sin may be that because he really isn't a behaviorist is watching his crows he observed what he decided was "pleasure" but he never asked the obvious question, "Why does pleasure exist? What's biological advantage?" Instead he seems to have assumed that pleasure is purely psychological state devoid of purpose. At the root of all behavior is the idea that almost nothing is without purpose. Evolution rewards good ideas in the sense that, grooming contributes to health, so animals that tolerated grooming and reciprocated had an edge. Over time this evolves into a hardwired stimulus/response. What's the purpose of a pleasure response in grooming? It encourages further grooming and contributes to the well being of the species. It's not about self-awareness or emotion.

I know you've read Heini Hediger. Hediger certainly tried to explain ethology and behavior to circus trainers as far back as the 1940's. At least for a while in the post-war generation of the 1940's and 1950's I think there was an intellectual understanding of the mechanics of classical and operant conditioning and why they work, at least in Europe. It would be interesting to know what say Court understood versus what Jacobs understood. In American circus in the end so much comes down to economics. You hire the guy who gives you the tricks at the lowest price. Not the best tricks. So trainers train the way they saw the other guy do it. Or they figure out something that works on their own -- even if it isn't the ideal solution. I think there were several classical trainers who would have been brilliant operant trainers if they had been exposed to the science ...Because they would have understood why it worked faster than somebody who never trained classically. It makes sense to you because you've worked with goats and birds, animals that quickly respond to conditioning. Unfortunately for at least fifteen years now there are some people in the circus field who seem to actively opposed behavioral approaches because it takes the mystery out of the process. So maybe somebody else could do their job, or even do it better. The irony is that most people don't have the patience to train an animal by any method.

Casey McCoy Cainan said...

One of my first books about animals in my circus career was "Psychology of Animals in Circuses and Zoos" by Hediger. It has helped me look at things I saw in a different light ever since. It truly is not enough to get an animal to do something, one really need to know "why" the animal is doing it if you want it to last. And you are rite about the supposed mystery in training. The cool part is, that once you do understand how it works you realize that even a four year old with the correct knowledge can do it, it isn't even difficult. The patience on the other hand can be tougher, lucky for me, I have some of that.

B.E.Trumble said...

On some level I imagine that people working with animals have had some clue when it comes to basic concepts like stimulus/response for thousands of years, even if it didn't have a name. Pavlov just gave it a label and demonstrated that it always works all the time, on some level. It's the core element to all classical conditioning. Cognitive behaviorists tweaked teh model to achieve stimulus-stimulus behaviors and round out classical conditioning. On the more basic level classical response conditioning is an attempt to create create an involuntary behavior. Cue the animal and response is automatic. Response conditioning is imperfect when you start to apply it to fairly intelligent animals that may become tolerant of aversions. So the aversions escalate. In bad training ultimately there's a whole lot of stimulus and not much response, no matter how severe the aversions or corrections. In understanding behavior and conditioning as it applies to training what made Skinner so revolutionary was the idea that conditioning for a voluntary response actually works better in training many behaviors than classical conditioning does. In an operant state a behavior is actually learned and understood by the animal rather than somethings thats merely reflexive. So when you seat trained Tora this summer she had some actual understanding of why she was going to that seat in a way that a cat a generation ago repeated dragged to a seat with a collar and a block and tackle did not. That doesn't mean that a block and tackle or a collar couldn't be used operantly in shaping and modeling, but alone it provides no voluntary element.

What's fascinating is that while a whole lot of animal behaviors are hardwired (pure instinct,) a lot of behaviors aren't, they're learned. And that's especially important in looking at predators like the big cats. Their defensive behaviors are mostly instinct, but their hunting behaviors are learned beginning with play when they're cubs. When you observe predator/prey relationships in cats you begin to see those purely predator behaviors and the stimulus that triggers them. In looking at accounts of attacks in zoos and circuses you can even differentiate between defensive and predatory attacks. We tend to label some cats as "tough." Because they're very defensive, or very predatory? When somebody is injured by a cat that was otherwise a sweetheart a lot of time you can look at the events and find a trigger that provoked a predatory response. Robin Silverman's death at the Bronx Zoo in 1985 was a classic and tragic illustration. A cat that displays a healthy amount of defensive behavior attacks defensively, like the case at the zoo in San Francisco.

One of the credos of the business has always been that you can train dangerous animals but you can't tame them. They will always be "unpredictable." Part of what's fun about behaviors and training is that that credo isn't entirely true. If you really understand the mechanics and mechanisms of behavior you can predict it with a pretty high degree of success.

Blog Archive