Blackfish – a dog trainer’s perspective

Blackfish – a few comments from a dog trainer’s point of view.

I have just come from the US Association of Professional Dog Trainers annual Conference, where Ken Ramirez, behaviourist and trainer of many different species, from the Shedd Acquarium in Chicago, said that in relation to training, the welfare of the animal should come first. Health, nutrition, environment, relationships – all are more important than training the animal to perform behaviours.

At first I thought this was a no-brainer… either that or it’s a profound comment. In the light of Blackfish, it is vitally important.

So what does the film reveal about the killer whale Tilikum’s welfare? He was removed from his mother when young. Fishing trawlers herded the young whales into a dead end in Seattle’s Puget Sound, and captured them. This is very distressing because Orcas are highly social, take good care of their young, and the offspring stay with the matriarchal family even when they reach adulthood.

The documentary shows the mother whale screaming as her infant is hauled up onto the boat. Tilikum lost his family, and was placed with some unfamiliar females who beat him up. He had to be held in isolation a lot of the time to protect him from being attacked. He was confined in a small space and unable to swim for hundreds of miles as whales do in the open ocean.

Seaworld claimed that he enjoyed coming out to perform. Well, of course he did. It was better than being immobilised in sensory and social isolation. That does not make it a good lifestyle. Whales held under these conditions had plenty of reasons to feel stressed and frustrated.

Tilikum was involved in the deaths of three trainers.

The documentary shows how various misleading accounts and explanations of these fatal incidents were given. Was the death of a trainer an accident? Did she slip into the water and drown? Was she pulled in by the whale? Was she held under water by the whale? What other injuries did she have? And from my point of view as a trainer, what was the context? What events led up to the fatal incident?

As far as I can tell, the whale was initially performing happily the tasks the trainer asked him to do. He swam around on his side with a fin in the air. She “bridged”, which means she blew her whistle to signal to him, in effect, “that’s good, you’ve done that trick, so now come over and get your reward.”

But Tilikum kept swimming and completed a whole circuit of the pool – giving his trainer twice as much of that behaviour as she had asked for. Another trainer in the film said Tilikum probably just didn’t hear the whistle. If so, that was the only accident involved.

Sometimes, we click a dog, and he or she continues with what she is doing instead of stopping and coming over for the reward. That’s OK. But when the dog eventually finishes and returns to the trainer, my approach would be to click again, and give the dog a super-dooper reward, for performing over and above what was required. For some reason that I don’t understand, Tilikum’s trainer gave him what we call a “no reward marker” and withdrew her attention. This is in effect a punishment.

Imagine if you had a young child who was showing you what she had done in her dancing class. You said “that’s great, sweetie”, but she didn’t hear you, and kept on dancing. Then when she eventually finished and came to you, you said “I don’t like that behaviour” and walked away… Imagine how crestfallen, hurt and angry she would feel. I will probably be accused of anthropomorphism, but I expect that’s how Tilikum felt. But there was more to it than that. He had been trained to perform various behaviours for a reward.

Not only does he learn the behaviours. There is also what is called “meta learning”. He learns that the rules of the game are that if you get the behaviour right, you get a reward. But on this occasion, he worked twice as hard as normally, but he was not rewarded, in fact he was punished.

I am not surprised that this caused resentment and anger to be expressed towards the trainer. Add to this another training error – not the trainer’s fault, but Seaworld standard practice – Tilikum knew that the trainer was almost out of fish, and soon there would be no more rewards. This is bad practice. The animal should not know whether he will get a reward or not, just that it is always a possibility. It might seem like a small error, but it is one with huge consequences. It added up to Tilikum’s behaviour and attitude breaking down.

This, I believe, in the context of his overall deprivation, is why he took part in a fatal attack. The pathology does not lie within the whale, and nor were the precipitating circumstances the trainer’s fault. Seaworld must change the underlying conditions in which these sensitive and intelligent creatures are kept.


About transformational1

I have many interests and I have had a varied career. I am a semi-retired professional dog trainer, specialising in the use of positive reinforcement. I do some consultations, I run instructor workshops and I am setting up a Dogs and Psychotherapy Research Project. I have a law degree from Melbourne University (but have never practiced) and I am passionate about Human Rights. My first degree was in Sociology. I worked as a social researcher on issues such as low income housing, women's refuges and women in the workforce. I live in an inner suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and I have a German Shepherd called Chance.
This entry was posted in Animal intelligence, animal training, Behavioural science, killer whales, marine mammal training, orcas and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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