Friday, February 26, 2010

Missing the Lesson While Learning It

The December 2003 Whole Dog Journal featured an interview with a pair of Sea World whale trainers.

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."

Some game.

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.

Has Tilikum?

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.


  1. I note that Thompkins' need to feel liked ties in perfectly with the prevailing dogma of the WDJ mindset. Their training philosophy is completely and utterly self-centered.

    It's all about them and their need to feel warm, fuzzy and "pure". Even the only way they can achieve it means keeping animals as prisoners (or hostages, ala Stephen King's "Misery").

  2. I'll second Smartdogs: I do not hold the WDJ in a high esteem. Their food articles and reviews are worth a gander, but other than that, I could get more use of the publication as kindling. Firewood would probably be cheaper, though!

    I think the best article I ever read about about how, despite what "everyone ELSE" was saying about tug being BAD OHNOEZ because it makes AGGRESSIVE DOGZ, it was actually a very beneficial game in some respects. I almost wrote to them with utter astonishment, that they'd discovered the best-kept-secret of many a balanced trainer and Schutzhund trainer worldwide!

  3. I stopped using the WDJ as litter pan liner after that article Heather.

    When you wrote the comment about the family, I remembered the article.

  4. No need for a species survival plan.

    These animals aren't endangered. They are "Least Concern" by the ICUN, which publishes a Red List of which species are in the most trouble.

    The most interesting thing I've read about orcas is that they may be developing into separate species. Different populations have different ecological niches.

    Although I don't think of dogs as separate species from wolves, these two populations are evolving into different forms that are about as equivalent as the differences between wild Canis lupus and Canis lupus familiaris.

  5. Marine mammal breeding programs exist because they don't allow them to bring those animals into captivity any longer and is not related to their status in the wild.

    This is why Sea World has been gobbling up marine mammals when they have the chance...and it is always ugly as they really hold onto the corporate mentality.

  6. Maybe they need to take a few years and do what the Soviets did with their fox breeding programs: create a calm, friendly strain of orca.

    Maybe the whales will turn spotted or all-white as a result. Of course, their dorsal fins will still droop and their tail flukes will remain curled, so no gain there like with the foxes' ears and tails...

  7. I referenced the lack of an SSP because where those are in place, overuse of a sire on whatever females are handy is verboten.

    Of course, orcas lack one because the captive population is a trivial percentage of the wild populations. As well, most orcas are owned by for-profit entities, not zoological parks that participate in this conservation effort.

    But Sea World et. al. are playing a short-term game -- trying to maximize the number of performers in the next generation by breeding over and over to the bull that is the most successful sire. They aren't thinking generations ahead, to the health of the captive gene pool.

    Are they placing a bet that the business model of whales as corporate-owned performers does not have a long-term future because of the gradual evolution of public sentiment? Or are they counting on being able to kidnap more animals from wild pods in a decade or so?

    I keep going back to Jean-Michel Cousteau's perfect distillation of the issue.

    I cut my baby teeth on his father's television shows, the wonder of the ocean and its creatures; like so many of my generation, I desperately wanted to be a marine biologist and go exploring with Jacque and Philippe and Jean-Michele.

    Of course, every biophilic child growing up in the 70's was not destined to a life of soggy field research.

    But Jean-Michele's sublime distillation of the status of whales reminds me why I care about the world, and how humanizing and expanding his family's work was for me and so many others. Whatever small and lopsided pearls I may comprise formed around a perfect seed called Calypso.

  8. Heather, why does that youtube address go straight to a Sea World corporate site?

  9. I had no idea that 'positive only' dog trainers held marine mammal trainers in such high regard. The mental dissonance (or careful ignorance) required for such admiration astounds.

    This is why I love this blog. Not only do I learn things, but it's things that astonish even my black, cynical heart.

  10. Okay, I found it by going to YouTube and searching under his name and whales in capitivity. When I copied and pasted the address from here into the search engine, it only offered up the Sea World site, which was just weird.

    I used to go to the Sea World in Aurora, Ohio when I was younger, but once they brought in a 'zoo' with zebras and tigers that were actually being taken care of like they were at a petting zoo, I had had enough of their indifference to respecting the animals, and never went back. The park closed a good while back and I don't miss it. Every 20 feet there was a gift shop, and far to little education really happened.

  11. Kate, I'm not having any trouble with the link, so am utterly mystified.

    I also went to Sea World in Aurora as a child.

    I loved it, but also remember how bad the water stank of chlorine and sea lion shit.

    I was just as impressed by the fallow deer in the petting zoo as by the performing whale.

    Adults often justify things for the sake of edjimicating the children when no such thing is taking place.

  12. Really lovely combination of moral outrage and level-headed thinking, as usual. On the Sea World backstage tours, they let you get up close and personal with everything except the Orcas. And it's not like a walrus is harmless.

    Yes, Cyborg Suzy, may of the PP people hold marine mammal trainers and training in high regard. In the first edition of "Don't Shoot the Dog" is says you can train a dog without ever touching it. Read that and thought I could teach a child to read without being in the same room with him, but why would I do something that difficult when I could make life easier for both of us?

  13. Kudos for unearthing the 2003 WDJ interview with Tompkins. It's revealing to be sure, and a hair disturbing, sort of like a flasher.

  14. That endline is classic. AhYep.

  15. Punishment doesn't work, but Respect and Trust go a long way.

  16. Ah, the interwebz belches forth another original, thoughtful, evidence-rich statement, on par with We have always been at war with Eastasia and Jesus loves me, this I know.

    "Respect and trust" in re: an incarcerated orca is just shorthand for "Have so far avoided being the object of the inevitable collective comeuppance of the captivity industry."


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