Not only dogs: Now also sea lions, parrots and dolphins

Publicado el 19 de March de 2015

Hi everyone,

In a previous post I hinted that we were on the verge of closing a very important agreement for EDUCAN. Today I can finally announce that the project is already on its feet!

We have signed an agreement with ZOOS IBÉRICOS, an entity that belongs to Parques Reunidos which is the company that owns more zoos and aquariums all over the world. The purpose of the agreement is to implement our cognitive-emotional training methodology with various species. We will start with sea lions, parrots and dolphins at the Madrid Zoo.

Since I am thrilled with the project I would easily exceed the limits of the post. To prevent it, I will just quote the section of the agreement with ZOOS IBÉRICOS referring to this partnership. I have edited the document just adding bold characters to emphasize what I believe are the most relevant pieces of information. This will also please my “webmaster of the universe” who always insists on me to use bold characters to emphasize important passages in blog articles.

OBJECT OF THE AGREEMENT

The main object of the partnership between the two parties to the present agreement is to design, implement and evaluate the results of the application of new training protocols for various species. For this purpose the main yardsticks will be the three pillars of the cognitive-emotional training methodology: (1) the exploitation of the cognitive skills of each species, (2) the assessment of their emotional state, and (3) the understanding of their unique social behavior patterns.

This main objective can be broken down in two different operational aims:

1. Improved animal welfare:

The new protocols will pursue the improvement in the quality of life and working conditions of the animals. Regarding the choice of behaviors, both parties agree to give priority to animal welfare over other considerations like the appeal to the public and how spectacular the chosen conducts seem to be.

According to recent ethological findings animals generate conduct differently depending on whether they are in an environment where they have to fight for survival (i.e., scenarios characterized by predatory risks, resource scarcity or the need of an active defense of the territory) or in a welfare environment (i.e., scenarios where there are plenty of resources and no foreseeable risks for the animal).

Most of the current training techniques, including many of those relying on positive reinforcement processes, are based on the survival environment paradigm, what worsens the results even with animals who enjoy an optimal quality of life.

One of the main technical and ethical purposes of this partnership is to develop working protocols based on the way animals generate conduct in welfare environments. This means that animals will not work driven by the need to ensure their survival but solely by the motivation to improve their physical, emotional and social welfare.

2. Research:

The aim is to apply state-of-the-art knowledge on ethological issues to animal training, as well as to evaluate the results deriving from this implementation.

The present project is pioneer in:

a. Exploiting the cognitive processes known in each species for the purpose of training animals. Until now operant conditioning has been the main working tool for animal trainers. Operant conditioning has the advantage of being applicable to all of the species typically involved in animal training programs. However, cognitive ethology has proven that different species can have various mental processes like problem solving, learning by imitation (as shown in Pepperberg’s rival model in relation to psittacidae). […] “[B]y taking advantage of these specific capabilities the quality of the work will increase. Since many of the referred cognitive processes are self-reinforcing, their use drastically reduces the need to rely on external sources of reinforcement and helps attaining more consistent conducts while improving the emotional state of the animals. In other words, animals enjoy offering the behaviors and see them as goals in themselves rather than as mere gates of access to food (i.e., the normal state of affairs when primary extrinsic reinforcers are relied upon). Cognitive processes have the further advantages of allowing self-assessment to animals and improving their intrinsic reinforcement capabilities.

A further advantage of the new methodology is that training sessions will work as environmental enrichment interventions thereby improving animal welfare. In addition, fewer sessions will be needed to maintain the behaviors, the improvements will be achieved faster and the quality of the work will be more solid.

b. Evaluating and fine-tuning the emotional state of animals during training sessions and shows, decreasing their levels of distress and improving stress management by trained animals, promoting positive emotional states in them and developing reliable instruments for tracking emotional welfare in trained animals.

c. Developing protocols to take advantage of those social processes characteristic of the species, like affective bonding, so that the interaction between animals and trainers in the course of the working sessions and exhibitions becomes a desirable and self-reinforcing objective. Nowadays we know that affection is an important drive in many species of social mammals. Notwithstanding the fact that many trainers have exploited these aspects intuitively for a long time, this working methodology has not been tested in a systematic and scientific manner. Thus one of the objectives of this partnership is to create protocols for those species covered by the project.”

…and a last excerpt from this agreement: “one of the tasks entrusted to EDUCAN consists of:

– Designing protocols, schemes and working techniques for different species.”

Overall, it constitutes a VERY exciting project which is going to demand lots of work from us (probably we will have to restrict some commercial activities to be able to sleep once in a while). However, it is a huge step towards the long due paradigm update in relation to animal training.

I am very grateful to Miguel Bueno Brinkmann, biologist and head curator of birds and sea mammals at the Madrid Zoo, and Pablo Roy, head trainer for sea lions at the same institution, for their interest and invaluable help in making this project come true.

I AM DEFINITELY THRILLED

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