Our friend and teammate Craig had a subscription, and handed me the issue when it was new. In one section of the interview, trainer Chuck Tompkins discussed the use of "negative punishment" -- e.g. withdrawal of food for noncompliance -- on the orca they were training. Here's the passage that I read aloud to him and Perfesser Chaos:
Tompkins: "Yeah. One of the first chances he got, Ramu showed us exactly how he felt about having things taken away from him, and how he felt about us.
"One of the first times I got in the water with him, he grabbed me by the waist, dragged me to the bottom of the pool, held me down there until I almost passed out, brought me up for a breath -- and then did it all over again. He shook me, tossed me around, raced around the pool with me in his mouth. When he had made his point, he literally spit me out onto the deck."
WDJ: "Yikes. and the conclusion you drew from this was?"
Tompkins: "I said to Thad, 'Oh my god! This whale hates me!' It hit us both like a ton of bricks. When push came to shove, we had no real relationship with that animal. It was a revelation."
WDJ: "And that's when you decided to try an all-positive training program with the whales instead?"
So, what became interesting about this passage were the different reactions the three SAR dog handlers in the room had to Tompkins' story.
• Craig was struck by how intelligent an animal Ramu had to be, to know just how long was almost, but not quite, long enough to drown a human being, and what it might mean to keep something that intelligent in a tank and make it do tricks.
• I marveled at how Tompkins missed the fact that the whale did not "hate" him. The whale held him in contempt, which is different. If Ramu had hated him, he'd have killed him. I especially liked the "spit me out onto the deck" image. Forbearance -- a mark of nobility. Also, "withdrawing rewards" as a form of "negative punishment" sounds very benign, until one reflects that it comes down to "Do as I say or I will starve you in this concrete tank, bitch."
• Ken -- the guy who cannot hear 90% of the simple declarative sentences that are uttered by his wife, the non-trainer who seems to be not paying attention at all most of the time -- Ken was the most astounded of us all, because it was obvious to him that the whale had trained all the trainers to behave exactly the way he wanted them to by administering one powerful correction to just one of them.
The humans failed to see that "punishment" was working very well on them, even if it hadn't been working very well for them.
In the aftermath of Tilikum's fatal attack on trainer Dawn Brancheau, the three human corpses floating in this whale's wake are being spun as "accidents" because the whale was "playing."
The whale was not angry, vindictive, cranky, testosterone-poisoned, predatory, or yearning to breathe free. There is nothing to take away from Ms. Brancheau's death beyond no ponytails in the splash zone, and under no circumstances will Sea World take any steps that will cut into its $2.7 billion business. Tilikum is a $10 million commodity. As the Baby Daddy* to two-thirds of Sea World's tank-bred orcas, he may be the most valuable livestock in the industry. He stays in the bathtub until he dies.
But that long-ago warning shot by Namu -- "this whale hates me!"
Now, the trainers who obediently stopped withholding fish from their masterful human trainer and became "pure" positive continued to get knocked around. But Tompkins had an explanation for that -- it was due to the previous training regimen, natch.
Maybe so. Tilikum, however, was snatched from Icelandic waters long after all the whale trainers went officially "purely positive." All the overt force was front-loaded onto the bad guys who kidnapped the whales from their families, and the background coercion of the tank walls and the fish bucket pushed beneath the crust of consciousness. So I guess that excuse won't fly this time.
Later in the interview, Tompkins describes "going positive" in his personal life after the revelation in the bathtub.
"I realized that I had effectively trained my family to see my car in the driveway and be all 'Dad's home! Run!' Even the dog used to hide when I got home!
That wasn't what I wanted; I wanted my family to be happy to see me, to greet me at the door. To do this, I had to stop 'correcting' everything that I saw that was 'wrong' and instead start reinforcing all the good things I saw in my family. I had to practice being engaged and enjoyable to my family. Now when I come home, everyone says 'Yay! Dad's home!' And my dog doesn't hide anymore, either!"
Over the years I've helped many clients who had who had poor relationships with their dogs, and a few who had fallen into a poisonously punitive spiral that was hard to break, and probably met technical thresholds for abuse at some point before they asked for help. But I have never, ever, met anybody whose dog runs and hides when he comes home. Most dogs that are frankly beaten still run to fawn over their abusers; they may be crouched and peeing on their own feet when they do it, but they are coming out to greet that person.
Is it any wonder that this guy was ripe for a conversion experience?
Furthermore, notice that this is all about what he wants. He wants Mom to meet him at the door in pearls and high heels and hand him his pipe, Rover to bring his slippers, and little Mikey and Sarah to jump up and down and yell Yay Dad. And he figured out how to get what he wanted.
Does he even know what he wants?
Whatever it is, it isn't forthcoming when he positively reinforces his captors with his spectacular cooperation. And it sounds as if his other plan isn't working out too hot either.
* Orcas don't have a Species Survival Plan. They are corporate assets. There is no conservation value to the captive breeding program -- its only function is to engender more performers, and boost ticket sales when there is an adorable orca infant for the gawking. Be that as it may, if one is going to create a catastrophic genetic bottleneck in the very first generation of a breeding program, one might at least mitigate the damage to the future character of the inbred gene pool by not using a sire who ices a human being once a decade.