[00:00:00] Kyle: You just have to completely walk away from that mentality and that, it’s hard for individuals like us that have that as our first order of learning. That was deeply ingrained to us as the first thing we held on to. And so, to have to create those new pathways in our brain to how we look at situations, and how we approach things, it, it really does become fun because I tell my team all the time now, ” I don’t live in the box and think outside the box. I’m constantly running around the box. That’s where my solutions come from is just living outside the box and trying to think of off the wall things that you wouldn’t normally do.”
[00:00:31] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…
[00:00:48] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…
[00:00:50] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.
Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.
The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was Kyle Hetzel. Kyle Hetzel is the assistant curator of the Children’s Zoo at an AZA accredited zoo on the West Coast. He has been an animal trainer for 12 years, working with a wide range of species, from birds of prey to walrus, giraffe, goats, and everything in between.
Throughout his career, one of his passions has been finding ways to uniquely connect guests with the animals in his care. It is his belief that the animals under his care serve as ambassadors for their wild counterparts. Kyle loves to highlight the intelligence and personalities of those ambassadors, all in hopes of inspiring the public to want to care more.
He has utilized the constructional approach, training animals for the past nine years, specializing in assent with disabled animals. At his current facility, he leads training teams that are designing training programs with assent focused behaviors. Being a part of training teams where various backgrounds come together to help grow and learn is one of the parts of the job that brings him the most joy.
I always love when we have awesome zoo folks on the podcast because I get to live vicariously through their stories working with these incredible species that I don’t get to work with. I learned so much about different species from guests like Kyle, and he, of course, was no exception. I learned so much from him.
I also really appreciated him talking about management buy in, because so much of the work we do is about buy in. It could be management buy in for shelter staff or volunteers. It could be a client buy in for professionals, or just pet buy in for all of you awesome pet parents listening. And what we talked about with that can be applicable to so many different situations. In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Kyle talk about just because you can doesn’t mean you should, how training saved 24, 000 dollars and got management buy in, a giraffe that loves to be right, and giraffe hugs.
All right, here it is, today’s episode, Kyle Hetzel, New Alternatives to Old Solutions.
[00:03:22] Emily: All right, tell us your name, pronouns, and pet.
[00:03:26] Kyle: So, my name is Kyle Hetzel, my pronouns are he, him, and my pets are a 13 year old pit bull named Rocky, who has been by my side my entire animal journey.
[00:03:37] Emily: I love that. Okay, so tell us your story and how you got to where you are.
[00:03:41] Kyle: I grew up a huge fan of The Crocodile Hunter and waking up every morning, watching him on TV, seeing the excitement and the passion that he had, I wanted to do that. I wanted to be able to get close with animals and share them with everybody else. And so, every step since I was in third grade has been slowly trying to take those approximations towards that ultimate goal.
And I went to college at the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. And there I started as a zoology major, but I hated the classes. I hated the coursework because it was just about memorize this skull and know the scientific name and be able to spell it perfectly, and that just didn’t jive with me.
When people go to the zoo, they don’t care about the scientific name, they don’t care that I can spell. They want to learn about the animals there, and so it was important for me to find a major that had a much more hands on approach, and that’s what led me to animal science. Because in that degree, I was formulating diets, I was writing health protocol plans, I was learning how to be able to work around animals safely, understanding, flight distance, stuff like that from a really early time. And it got me into the farms and into working with the beef herd at the college, and working with the equines and the pigs, so it was much more hands on.
And while I was in school, I got my first internship at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, which is in Center Point, Indiana. And at the time they had over 250 rescued big cats from all over the country. So, lions, tigers, leopards, mountain lions, servals, bobcats, and it really opened my eyes to… the desire and the need for people to get in and start working with animals more.
So, I actually had a little bit of a back and forth with my boss at the time, like, “why do I need to go to college and get a degree to be able to tell the difference between feces and rocks? I can do that already. I don’t need a college degree.” And they were really adamant about, ” Go to school, get a degree. It’ll make you stand out more. It’ll help you throughout your life.” And I went back to school, and I got a job at a little rescue sanctuary nearby, and started out as just your normal kennel tech, cleaning cages, stuff like that. And it just so happened that the vet tech at the time had quit and left this little, tiny spay and neuter low income clinic with nobody.
And being the longest person who had been there, the vet kind of tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, do you feel like learning how to be a vet tech?” So, at the time there was no schooling, it was just birth by fire, learning how to be a vet tech, understanding what my vet’s needs were, doing records, all that stuff. And training the kennel technicians as well.
And from there we had started working with a dog training company to help us with some of our problem dogs and how to get them placed in homes better. And it just so happened that they had a opening for an internship, and so I transitioned from vet tech to this internship, working with working police dogs, personal protection canines, cadaver dogs, really high end dogs, and the dogs that had, really severe behavioral issues. Some that I point out is, I had a lab that would resource guard a shadow because, the family had picked everything up off the ground, and so this lab would literally guard shadows.
So, that was my intro into training, and the part that I always try to be really honest and open with people about is my introduction to training was compulsion training. So, there was an element of positive punishment in the beginning of my training knowledge and foundation. And from there, I moved out to California, and after I graduated from college, and got a job at a small little rescue sanctuary called the Wildlife Learning Center in Sylmar, California.
And the opportunities and things that kind of took off or just really kind of stuff you wouldn’t imagine being able to go to do speaking engagement at Disney Imagineering Studios and being able to do huge presentations in front of college auditoriums. And through networking, I was able to meet an individual who knew that Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Northern California was hiring, and they were looking for somebody that had a little bit more of a diverse background, not species specific.
And that’s what brought me to my first really large institution. And that’s where, I feel like my training life took off, is at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. At the time I was just an entry level trainer, just working with whatever animals, and I heard that the giraffe training mentor was coming in that day, and I said, “Is it okay if I just watch the session, if I take my break and watch you all work?”
And they said, “Absolutely, that’s fine.” And in rolls up Lisa Clifton Bumpus, who many of your listeners remember, and she saw this weird individual in myself that had this really huge ego, but this really big hunger. And she was able to tap that ego down a little bit and say, “There’s a lot that you don’t know, but I can take what you do know and really build off of it.”
And from there, I worked really hard to join the giraffe training team, and I was tapped based on my dog abilities to raise the gray wolf that we had at the time. And that led me to an amazing opportunity to network with the marine mammal team, because the wolf that I was raising turned out to be heavily vision impaired, and need eye drops and eye exams.
And I knew that the sea lion team had a ton of experience training for eye exams, and eye drops, and all those things. And I networked with them. I would ask them to come watch my training sessions. I’d ask for feedback and an opportunity opened up to join them. And usually in the animal field, you have to pick your track, right?
You either are going to be on land mammals or you’re going to be marine mammals. And I thought to myself there’s never a time that my resume is going to support me going to marine mammals. So, I should jump on this opportunity and join the marine mammal team. And that led me down, three and a half years of working with seals, sea lions, otters, and walruses.
From there, had an opportunity to join the current institution at a large AZA facility at the, on the West coast. And it was being able to work in the Children’s Zoo and working with domestic livestock, and the way that it was presented to me was, “Let’s work with these animals the same way you work with the sea lions. The same way you’re not going to pin a thousand-pound sea lion up against the wall and give them an injection, you’re not going to do it to a goat or a mini horse just because you can.” And from there, I’ve worked with a lot of different species at this institution and currently the assistant curator over the Children’s Zoo. So, that kind of brings you up to speed to where I’m at today.
[00:09:38] Emily: I love your whole story partially because you and I actually have a lot in common. I also started when I was very young, and started in vet clinics and wildlife rehab, and so I’m, we had we started off the same, but then you got to go in this really cool direction with zoos. And I stayed with domesticated animals, which I love them too. Like they’re amazing. But yeah, I see you hugging giraffes and feel just a little bit jelly the turn your life took, and, oh, another thing that we have in common is that I actually started off too with very coercive training methods,
and it was a whole long journey for me to discover better ways of doing things. But one of the things that I really love about what you were saying is that when you realize that what is possible with an animal that you can’t coerce, then suddenly it just opens up your worldview to what’s possible with animals that you can coerce, and it doesn’t seem necessary anymore. You realize it’s not something that you have to do, it’s not a necessary evil. There are actually alternative ways to get the same results, or even better results, I would argue. And I really relate to that because that was, I did not get to learn that lesson with marine mammals, but I had that same learning journey. So, I’m really with you on that.
[00:11:00] Kyle: When you’re so used to seeing that coercive mentality with really big high end working dogs, like a Malinois or a Cane Corso that, you can see some of those things like a really aggressive correction. It’s like, “All right, I see you. But I’m going to bring out this thousand-pound male sea lion who was rescued from the wild after being shot in the face. You’re not going to throw an e-collar, a check chain, you’re not going to smack that animal in the face. You have a very different realization when you have a thousand-pound apex predator who’s looking at you and asking you for direction and asking you for feedback.”
And so, you really just, it’s not even like you put it in your back pocket. You just have to completely walk away from that mentality and that, it’s hard for individuals like us that have that as our first order of learning. That was deeply ingrained to us as the first thing we held on to. And so, to have to create those new pathways in our brain to how we look at situations, and how we approach things, it, it really does become fun because I tell my team all the time now, ” I don’t live in the box and think outside the box. I’m constantly running around the box. That’s where my solutions come from is just living outside the box and trying to think of off the wall things that. You wouldn’t normally do.”
[00:12:07] Emily: Yeah, I love that. And I think that What you brought up about like changing, it’s not just changing your beliefs, right? It’s actually changing your neural pathways, and that’s such a hard thing for, I think, a lot of people to understand because they expect somebody who’s new to these concepts to see a new way of doing things and suddenly just be able to do it and be on board.
And that’s not actually how learning works at all. There’s so much muscle memory that you have to unlearn. And like for years after I had embraced new concepts, every once in a while, some weird little muscle memory thing would pop out in a period of high stress or like panic, and I’m like, “Where did that come from?”
It took years to unlearn all of that. And I think that’s something that as, we’re entering an era in our field where there are more people who never experienced that coercive background, that they just came straight into more ethical ways of training, and it’s hard for them to wrap their head around how much of a journey that can actually be and having a little more compassion for people who are on that journey is really important because like you said, you’re, it’s really about not just changing your mindset, but also rewiring your brain and how your muscles respond to things, and it’s, it is a whole journey, right?
All right. So, a lot of our listeners don’t work in zoos, but they do either work in an animal care facility themselves, or they consult for, or volunteer for, or otherwise support animal care facilities. And this can include things like shelters, rescue groups, animal sanctuaries, dog daycares, boarding facilities, training centers, stables, all of that.
And of course, each of those kinds of animal care facilities faces different challenges, but there are also common challenges that they all share. And one of those challenges is making sure that everyone on their team is on the same page and is working together for the good of the animals in their care and doing so in the same way.
At Pet Harmony, we like to say we’re all on the same boat rowing in the same direction, right? So, can you talk about how you build a cohesive team that maximizes the wellbeing of your populations?
[00:14:24] Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. I was really thinking about that today, about the different teams that I’ve been a part of. And, growing up playing team sports, the team is really important to me and who I am. And so, I love being a part of teams, especially training teams. And thinking about that, the one common thread that I’ve always seen pull through is, is the support at the top. And a lot of people, I think the mass of people who we’re always talking to and who we’re trying to reach are the ones who are stuck somewhere in the middle that are reaching out and trying to get more help. And what I have found is that when you have buy in at the top, it’s easier to push everything that we’re looking from, from behind.
And rather than automatically assuming the top leadership role because we are the ones who want to make the change. We need to look at creating buy in before we look at creating teams. And so, I think that ultimately starts with being able to understand how reinforcers work, not just for our learners, but for our team.
And being able to access learner’s reinforcers and being able to start to shape behavior is important, but looking at your team and what reinforces your team, I think, is even more crucial. And that’s something that Lisa was really big at teaching me, is it’s… It was always me calling Lisa for this problem of, “Hey, I have this thing that I need to do with this animal.”
And she goes, “That’s great. What does that animal need you to do?” And so, for a long time, it’s not just looking at what I need somebody else to do, but what does that other individual need me to do? And so, when I think about getting the buy in at the top, really successful teams have had managers or leadership roles being in the trenches with you.
And it can go back to, when I was working, raising the eight-week-old wolf cub, the manager was with me, and seeing every step of the way. And seeing, I was willing to shower eight times a day to go into quarantine, to bond with that animal, to start building these training steps at an early age. And they were right there doing the showers just as well because they were in quarantine and quarantine in zoos is a big issue that we need to work through because, yes, it is a sterile environment, but we still need to be able to create a really enriching, diverse environment because you can’t just go from this little isolated pod to now you’re in front of thousands of people at a zoo.
And another big one was our goat training team at my current facility that these goats came in at the peak of COVID, as COVID was starting to take off. And these goats were going to be ambassadors. So, they were going to be in the contact yard, interacting with kids and people, but we had no kids or people for them to interact with.
So, all that time that we would normally be out interacting with guests, with our different appearances, we poured that into training. And this group of goats had multiple curators, interns, keepers, not just from this area, like department, but other departments as well. And because the curators were so involved and had such attachments to the program when things came up about appearances for those goats to go on, or medical procedures for those goats to go on, they had actual skin in the game. And that was so important to be able to defend some of the choices that were made in training, some of the welfare decisions that had to be made, but then also to feel that sense of pride when their animal was successful because it wasn’t just about the team, but also that they felt the success of that team.
And being able to understand what each person is being reinforced for, with the intern, it’s about being able to access a curator at such a frontline level to see vulnerability from a curator, to see vulnerability from a person who’s been at the zoo for 20 plus years, and to see them learning from peers and not just expecting to be the apex.
And then that curator who’s been in the field for 20 years, seeing their learner be successful was important. So, what we did to tweak that little bit of reinforcement loop was, rather than everybody working at the same time, we had five goats and five trainers. We would give that person their own session, so they got to work and hear feedback from people, and to see them light up and the ownership of that animal and how they could put their own little twists and flare on cues was really important to them. So, understanding when you’re building a team or you’re trying to impact change, finding out what some of those reinforcers are is really important, and sometimes it’s not just the feel good stuff. I had an animal when I was working with seals and sea lions that was rescued from a facility, after living there for her entire life, and she was 32 years old, she was the oldest sea lion in the country at the time, had no experience with training, no experience with people whatsoever.
During her intake exam, the vet said that she had a lot of pressure built up in her eyes and it was quite painful. So, we had to give her these eye drops to help decrease the pain, decrease the pressure, and that we would need to be able to do eye exams to make sure the meds were working. So, myself and the other trainer, Meg, we would ask, “Can we train this? We have experience doing this, let’s train this.”
And the manager was like, “No, don’t worry about it. She’s 32 years old, she’s blind, she’s deaf. It’s going to take too long, so just let her live her retired life out.”
So after about a week of attempting to put eyedrops in an animal that is just bobbing and weaving away from these eyedrops, went to the hospital and said, “Hey, I need a prescription refill.”
And they said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “Well, I’m out of meds.”
And they said, “We need to come watch you administer these meds.”
They come down, they watch us administer the meds, and they then report back to management, “Hey, if Kyle continues at this course of being able to put meds in and he is not wasteful, we’re looking at an extra twenty-four thousand dollars’ worth of eye medication costs.”
And that’s huge for an institution that takes care of animals. So, to be able to say to management, “Hey, if we train this, we’re saving twenty-four thousand dollars.” We have to go ahead. We have the buy in. We have access to that reinforcer, and away we go. And it was just really cool to see that. But then the next layer of that is, “Okay, now management wants to see how we’re training this blind, deaf animal.”
And at the time, because of the area that this animal lived, it was, again, it was shut down by USDA, the facility that she was at. And for her entire life, fish just rained from the heavens. So, she spent her entire life with her head, back, mouth open, and knowing that sea lions don’t naturally look like that, we were able to shape her, dropping her head and resting her head in our hands so that we could put those eye drops in perfectly.
One of the, you know, the high up managers, we got a picture of her with the sea lion Maggie resting her head in her hand, and that was a huge buy-in. So, being able to have these opportunities to connect. the leaders that are running our facilities to those things that are wanting to implement changes where I’ve seen the most amount of really fast change happening.
And if your readers are looking for resources to be able to access those things, the constructional questionnaire by Dr. Israel Goldiamond is an amazing set of questions that you can pepper in and have quick, ready to go when you’re talking and interacting with your managers to be able to get those questions, without it being that really direct “What’s going to reinforce you? What do you want out of this?” It can come off pretty abrasive, but the questions that Goldiamond came up with, they talk about little green Martians following you around with a video camera that they’re going to report back to the mothership with. So, it’s a really cool, quick resource guide to be able to look at how you can tailor them to your certain facilities, to your certain challenges, to really help make a difference.
[00:21:13] Emily: I love that. Thank you so much. We’re going to make sure to put that in the show notes so that people can easily access that because that is a really beautiful resource. And was just grinning like a fool the whole time you were talking. If I could have, I would have been giving you a standing ovation because I am here for every single thing that you said.
I really want to highlight and emphasize what you were saying about what do the learners need from us and how that applies to your team. Because so often management is, ” Oh, why isn’t my team doing X, Y, Z?” And it’s ” what do they need in order to succeed at that task?” And so, flipping the script and asking, “What can I do to facilitate a cohesive team?” Instead of, “Why isn’t my team performing at the level I expect them?” Is such a paradigm shift.
And It has been really, I’m just going to take a moment to toot our own horn and say, It has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life to see the way that Allie, and Ellen, and I run our team at Pet Harmony, doing all the things that we wish our bosses had done for us at previous places of employment, and seeing it absolutely work, and how cohesive our team is, and how supportive we are of each other, and how, when those performance issues arise, It’s not conflict. It’s not, we don’t have quote unquote problem children. We’re like, “Okay, what do we need to adjust about the environment to set this team member up for success so that they can really flourish in this environment?” It is such a critical perspective shift and I love that you brought it up because it’s so important.
And you were absolutely right that the only way to get management and the leadership to do that is to get that buy in and help them see why it’s so important, and so valuable to run a team that way. So, I just, I love everything that you said. Thank you so much for sharing all of that.
Another thing that I want to really emphasize and highlight is that you were talking about how, if we’re all in it together, there’s that power dynamic there, of the manager and staff member. And when you let staff members see your vulnerabilities as a manager, and you let them see you learning, and you allow yourself to learn from them, then it helps everybody to have that growth mindset. Because learning then isn’t something that’s embarrassing or shameful, it’s just a part of existing in the world, and, and, growing as a professional, right?
And yeah, removing the stigma of learning and allowing yourself to learn alongside your team is another really important factor to building good, cohesive team. I just love all of that.
[00:23:54] Kyle: And I think, what you all are talking about with your team, and you have, when you know that your team has the access to those reinforcers and you know that they know that you respect them and that the learners in charge of deciding what’s reinforcing, that it becomes a safe environment.
And that’s where, you really start to see, when people ask us about, animals assenting to these procedures and we give them all this choice, why are they likely to choose what you want them to do versus what everybody expects them to do, which is the opt out. And then, then you bring in contra freeloading and all this, but what it boils down to is safety.
And that when your team feels safe, you can have those honest conversations without feeling hypercritical or attacked, or am I going to lose my job? Because, I made this little mistake, but when you feel that safety of, I know that this is important to you, I feel seen, I feel heard. You can have those conversations a lot quicker and a lot, you just feel better about them.
You don’t feel icky. You don’t feel that stress, that tightness in your chest. You can just be able to have that, it’s a dialogue that you move fast. And those have been some of the best teams I’ve been a part of is when you have that shorthand or you can look across the other day, we were starting training with these animals, and I looked across and I saw one of our team members was getting low on reinforcer. So, I was able to pop down food for my group, run over, get reinforcers to the bucket, to that person without having that language, with that ability to feel safe enough, you can act a lot quicker and results a lot faster.
So, I absolutely see that with your team being able to say that, and you being able to give yourselves props, that you should absolutely be propping yourself because that is, that’s where I think all of the workforce needs to be moving. And I don’t think the people in charge of a lot of these big workforces are ready for that conversation to be had.
I don’t think they’re ready for the ownership of, that they are controlling a lot of these access to reinforcers, like time off. Making the younger generation not feel guilty about taking time off, and especially in a field that where we have individuals and animals that depend on us, feeling like you can’t take time off then just bleeds into the stress of everything else that we do.
Your family life, your friend life, that work life balance, it just, it comes down to safety. And that’s where I said, thinking about it, it comes from the top because if we’re looking to enact change, you have hungry individuals, and then when those people at the top can see that they’re hungry, they want more, you get so much more out of your productivity.
[00:26:10] Emily: Yeah. And I do understand its, change is hard, right? And change is exponentially harder when you have responsibility for an entire facility and you have all eyes on you and especially in nonprofits where like you have donors who are like holding you accountable or even not nonprofits when you have a Board of Directors who are holding you accountable, right?
So, I understand why change is hard, and also just like we were talking about earlier with coercive training, even after somebody is buying in its, ” Okay, I want to change. I want to change my leadership style.” The process of learning how to do that takes time. It building, building, building fluency in any skill takes time and practice.
And so, I understand why it’s hard for organizations to shift that mindset, but it really is better for everybody involved when we can let that, the hierarchy become logistical rather than cultural. That’s how we run Pet Harmony as well. We do have a hierarchy because there needs to be a direct report, there need to be people who have very clearly specified roles in the team, and there are people who need to be responsible for overseeing other things that are done, so that hierarchy is necessary, but it’s not a cultural hierarchy.
We still learn from the people who are technically beneath us on the chain. We still listen to them. They bring us ideas that we incorporate because that their position does not mean they have less value, or less of a voice, it just means that their role is different than those of us who are higher up on that chain. And that’s a very difficult cultural shift to embrace, and yet I think it is a necessary one. Yeah.
[00:27:52] Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. I think what I have found in this management role is just saying the word change is hard. We need to change this. And what I’ve equated that to is, okay, when we change our clothes, we’re literally taking what we have off. We’re stripping down, we’re left very vulnerable, very exposed.
So, rather than saying we’re changing, we need to adapt, and the reason we’re adapting is because of these outside forces that are coming in on us. And what that means is if we’re going to the beach, we’re going to have a certain attire. Just because I like wearing parkas doesn’t mean I’m going to rock my parka at the beach.
And that means that the beach environment is, it’s forcing us to adapt, take that parka off to be comfortable, and, if it gets cold, the parka goes back on, if it rains, we get an umbrella. We have to adjust to what the external environment is telling us. We’re not looking to change who you are; we’re not looking to take away any of your funkiness, your uniqueness. We just have to be able to respond to what’s happening that’s forcing these pressures on us that we have to adapt. And then it’s almost like that implication of what happens if you don’t adapt? You stop ceasing to exist in the environment.
And so that’s one of the language changes that I’ve tried to find myself if, again, if it’s a policy, we have to adapt this policy to current protocols that are being followed. We have to adapt. Being able to do this feeding protocol. So yeah, absolutely.
[00:29:06] Emily: Oh, my god. I’m stealing that from you. That is so great. I love that. Shifting from using the word change to adapt. It’s so beautiful. Thank you. Thank you for that. That’s excellent. So, let’s shift back to non-humans a little bit because I love this conversation of giving learners safety and as much choice and control as possible and giving them the ability to consent or assent.
And obviously clearly, you’re doing that well as a team leader. Now I want to hear you talk about how you do that with the animals in your care, because you mentioned training the wait, was it a sea lion.
[00:29:44] Kyle: Maggie, the sea lion.
[00:29:45] Emily: her head in your hand? Yes. Maggie, the sea lion. And I heard a rumor that you taught a kookaburra to voluntarily participate in an injection. Correct?
[00:29:56] Kyle: Yup. Absolutely.
[00:29:57] Emily: Yeah. Talk about that process for me, please.
[00:29:59] Kyle: So, I think again, like the biggest thing is, when I have these incredible platforms to be able to share the work that we’re doing is, I always want to make it clear that it’s not just me running around institutions like Batman, just fixing everything left and right, but that I’m a part of a team of people, and it’s always a group of us that are working together to make a difference. And so, it always just feels unjust that I get the opportunity to speak for the whole team. But a lot of the work that we do, it comes down to a group of people, exactly like we’re talking about with Pat Harmony, coming together with different experiences and backgrounds to make these things happen.
And when it comes to being able to give, that agency, choice and control, assent, consent, all those things, is it comes down to empathy and compassion, I think, is the root of everything that we do. And we think about what it’s going to feel like for us, and then also what that learner is experiencing, what their day to day is. The kookaburra, Cohen, is a real special little guy for us because he was the first kookaburra born at the facility since 1992, and he was designated as an ambassador. And for those of you who may not know, when an ambassador is brought into a collection, that animal’s duty, if you will, or job, is to interact with the public to inspire a lot of the things that you want when you go to a zoo.
You want to learn about conservation and connecting wildlife to people. And so, this little guy’s job was going to be to connect with people. And we thought, “Okay, how do other facilities do this?” Oftentimes, they have them in wildlife shows or encounters behind the scenes. And first thing we did was we taught him how to be able to fly to us.
And some of you also may not know, I don’t know, birds don’t inherently know how to fly. You have to be taught and you have to build up those muscles, and when we started teaching him how to fly, we looked at what Lisa Clifton Bumpus had taught us about the whole life approach. What does his whole life look like flying to people?
We wanted him to feel that he could make the choice to leave where he was to fly to us, as opposed to us come where he is. And that is a really big shift. And so again, thinking outside the box, we created the space in his enclosure where we could open the door into a little separate catch cage area where he could fly to us and be where we were.
And that kind of starts the conversation at being able to add these layers of behaviors that allows the animal to opt in or out. And you’re not looking for choice and control or ascent as a pivot point, but as a point of convergence to a number of different skills or behaviors for that learner.
And so, when we started training that, it was about him learning to fly to us to an area that he could leave his enclosure, and he could also go back to his enclosure if he felt like it. So, that’s that first little layer of him being able to opt in or out to the sessions. From there, we started trying to work on that classic kookaburra call, if any of you have seen any jungle movies or even any movie where that’s set in a forest, regardless if it’s a jungle, is you’re going to hear a kookaburra noise. So, they’re very well known, they’re from Australia, so we thought, “Alright, cool, let’s start to train him to be able to do these vocals on cue.” And right around there, we got the report that he was going to need his West Nile vaccine.
And the way that a lot of AZA zoos work is when you get a species, there is most of the time an animal care manual to help you navigate what that animal’s life is going to look like. Diet recommendations, breeding, habitat, enclosure, all those things. You get this little manual. And in that manual, it tells you most of the time you just take, you hand grab the bird off the perch, put him in a towel, and give him an injection.
And, thinking about it, how fair is it to that animal that is going to be flying to guests, to strangers, and the back of his head be keeping a tally, every 167th person that I encounter is going to grab me, and give me this injection. And again, it’s not a knock on anybody or any facility that is doing that, I don’t want it to come across that way, but that’s just how our team was thinking at the time. That it was merely, if this is how we’re training this, is it really fair to truly give this animal a choice? That all of a sudden, hands are going to come up, grab you, and give you this injection. And sure, the argument can be made it’s just once a year, it’s just this, but as many of us know in the animal field, things happen that aren’t in our control that we never ever thought we’d have to plan for that all of a sudden come up and you’re like, ” I have no idea how to handle this.” So, we started thinking, all right how can we bring our skills together to help this animal overcome a voluntary injection?
And we started reaching out to different people in the field to say, “Hey, have you ever seen a free flight of Kookaburra trained for a voluntary injection?” “Hey, have you ever seen this?” And a lot of people got back to us saying, “No, absolutely not.” And there were some people who were a little bit more aggressive like, “Absolutely not. It’s impossible. It’s unsafe. You shouldn’t be doing that.” But again, our team came together, and our team consisted of somebody who had 20 plus years of experience in the zoo field, a world renowned giraffe trainer, another person who had worked with gorillas as well as other domestic livestock, very experienced, very skilled trainer, and myself coming from another very diverse animal background.
And we started thinking, how can we work on this together to give him the skills to become an ambassador that can take part in his own injections? And what we did was utilizing, again, Dr. Israel Gold Diamond’s constructional approach, looking at the whole life of the programming that animal is going to encounter, we built skills that could help them learn to take part in his own voluntary injections.
So, the next thing was, all right, great. You came and flew to us. Now, can we start to shape and teach you the skills of objects touching you? We’re not just looking at it linearly, like first we touch you with a pen, then we touch you with a dull needle, then we touch you with a sharp needle.
We want him to be informed that different things are going to touch you. Again, in his life, he may get a scratch on his chest that we have to use some gauze and wipe it away, but if all we’ve ever trained him for is voluntary injections, if all of a sudden, I come at him with a white, wet cloth, that could totally startle him.
So, we want to prepare him for all the different things. And so rather than focusing just on the injection, we focus on all of these life skills. And again, at any point in time, that door remains open to fly back home. So, we’re not just, he flies out of his enclosure, he’s in the little vestibule with us and he’s stuck in that room with us.
He can fly home and shaping those skills to be touched by different objects, we were looking at, is he committed to that object? Is his body position leaning over forward towards us, towards the different objects that we’re using? And so slowly we introduce that, and then adding another person, but the one element that really pivoted on all of this was the hospital staff being a part of it and buying in as well. Because if you have any vet techs listening or any vets listening, there is no course in vet school that teaches you how to give an injection to an animal that is unrestrained, that can fly away, that if you mess up the injection, it could die.
So, we had to start default hospital and early to start the conversation of, “Hey, this is what we want to do.” And because one of the managers was a part of the training team, they could sit there and go to bat with us, with the vets and with the other, wellness people saying, ” We understand that there’s nothing that says that this can’t be done, but we’re also saying that just because you’ve never seen it done, doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”
And so, we found one of the vet techs that wanted to be a part of the training team and we folded her in, we started shaping her skills alongside shaping the kookaburra, Cohen’s skills as well. So, her being able to measure if he’s committed, her being able to feel how she can touch around his chest so that he doesn’t get off balance, so when she goes to give the injection, he’s not going to be pushed off balance and mess up the injection. So, shaping her skills alongside his was a huge part of the success of this. And eventually we were able to agree on using a TB needle as the injection source, but because again, hospital had been so conditioned to the needle’s too small, and you’re gonna have to do multiple injection, it’s that’s, we can train for those things. Like you’re literally talking about things we can train for. We can train for multiple injections. We can train for duration. And when we finally said to the vet techs, “If I could poke you with a bigger needle, but it’d be over in, half the time versus I can poke you with a smaller needle, that’s not going to take nearly the pain, but you’re gonna have to sit still a little bit longer, which are you going to pick?” And they all just looked at each other, “Yeah, we would take the TB needle.”
All right, cool. So, we’re in agreeance and hospital felt comfortable that the needle wasn’t too long, that it would pierce into an air sac or getting any vital organs. And that’s ultimately what led us to the point of, not only could Cohen fly to the vet tech, see what’s in the vet tech’s hands, get reinforced by the vet tech, then come to me, be able to understand that again, there’s numerous different objects that could be touching him, was what ultimately led us to being successful with that injection, and being able to build on different skills.
Initially, he was trained to fly to my hand, so I’d hold my hand parallel to the ground. He would fly to that flat surface, get reinforced on it. But we found that my hand, because we were doing something new, I was nervous, so I was shaking, I was being a very bad tree. So, what we did was one of the other members of the team, Elise, had trained him to go onto a little T Perch that we were using to weigh him.
That T Perch gave us stability, it gave him a solid landing point, and he had a reinforcement history with it because she was, as we were working the injections, she was training for the scale training as well. Because a big component of this was, we weren’t going to deprive him of food. We weren’t going to worry about any bit of food deprivation to be successful with this.
So, congruently, we’re weighing him doing these injection sessions, but we’re able to take that T perch from the weighing part and fold that in because that skill wasn’t just solely based on only when the scale is out, do I go on my scale perch, but we pulled that into the injection part of it as well.
So, the day came, we did the two injections for the West Nile vaccine. We’re all high fiving each other, Cohen’s all excited, and as Molly leaves, she goes, “I’ll see you guys in two weeks.” And we all look at each other, ” What do you mean two weeks? Like, we were just training for this injection?”
She goes, “Yeah he needs a booster. He’s never gotten it before. So, he needs a booster.” And what Molly didn’t realize was that in a week, he was going to be moving to a brand-new enclosure. And we were so worried that this skill set and group of skills that he had acquired was not going to transition to the new environment, but because constructional works the way that it is, and it allows the earn, the learners to own the skills two weeks later, brand new environment, Cohen flies right to the perch, two injections, no issues. And it was fantastic.
It was, one of those things where, we’ve been taught and listened to Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz about, change the environment, change the behavior. So, I reached out to him, I go, “So, what does this mean? Did I do something wrong? Is the behavior not solid?” And he’s like, “Well, I mean, I think I learned something from this because, I think that maybe we should adjust this to like problematic behaviors. If you’re wanting to pull those problematic behaviors away, then you pull them away from the environment if it happens, but when you have a skillset, that skillset is transferable location, because it’s dependent on the learner, not dependent on the environment.” And it was so mind blowing to us as a team to be like, this is something we empowered this bird with, this is something that he gets to have with him his entire life. That we can talk about that. You can see the agency and a big part of us being able to train that is being able to train and reinforce the no. So, when he’s uncomfortable with an approximation, or he’s not comfortable with what’s happening, being able to go to him and say, “Okay, I hear you, here’s the reinforcement. Let’s be able to look at what’s going to help you be successful in this environment again.”
So ultimately the third round of his West Nile boosters, it had gotten around the zoo that, he was this really amazing, incredible little bird that there was a line of people in front of his enclosure, wanting to see this happen.
And it basically almost blacked out his enclosure, there were so many people watching him, that he looks at them all, he flies to me, I reinforce him. Molly comes up to give him the injection and he flies away, and I turned to look, and I have this huge smile on my face on the video, cause I was like, “He opted out!”
Like he knew that was a valuable option and he opted out. And everybody’s like, “Yeah, but he didn’t get the injection.”
I go, “I don’t care. He knows that no is an option. He can clearly see that if he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t have to.”
And I cued him to fly over again, he flew over again, I reinforced him and when I reinforced him, he held the food in his mouth. I was like, “Oh, he’s not going to do it this time. It’s totally fine.” Molly walks up, he flew away. I was like, “Cool. He opted out. We’re going to respect it. This is not the environment for him. I’m sorry, everybody. But this is a big part of our training that the learner gets to say, have a say, and have control over it. And that’s what he did.” So, he is a very special little guy. And to that team’s credit, two of the other members of that team were not bird people and Cohen made them love him more than they’ve loved almost any other animal in their life before. He’s a special little guy.
[00:41:37] Emily: That is such a great story, and I really love the emphasis you put on letting him opt out and letting him say no. That’s such an important part of the process, not just because of if they’re uncomfortable with the environment, but a lot of times, animals know things that we don’t about the environment or their bodies.
And if an animal who has been doing something consistently says, no, it could be because there’s a pain issue, or there’s an injury, or something. And we need to be able to tune into that instead of being like, why aren’t you doing what I’m telling you to do? And so, I just love, I love that example of him being like, “Look, I do not want a large audience. No, thank you. I’ll pass this time.” That’s so sweet. I love that. Yeah.
So, let’s talk a little bit about the documentation portion of the enrichment framework, because we talk a lot about how important data collection is so that we can objectively track our progress, and I think that’s especially important when you have a team, and you have multiple people who are working on the same project, and maybe not all at the same time. So, what was your documentation like for Cohen’s process, for example? How do you typically keep track of the progress that you’re making with training, or just an enrichment plan in general for the animals in your care?
[00:43:00] Kyle: It ties back into that first question about, building the team, is what’s going to work for each team? What’s going to work for each member of that team to be successful in being able to document all those things? So, a couple of members of the team, the manager that was involved in that team, anytime that she could be a part of training or come up and get a session with him was fantastic and great, but what we were finding was, is she wasn’t really great at being able to document what her session looked like, and… How much food she used, how many mealworms she fed him, she loved to feed him mealworms, and he loved to go hunting for his mealworms.
Just because we typically keep our training logs in this type of format, and this is how we do it, it wasn’t going to work for that member of the team. So how do we adjust? How do we cater to keeping accurate documents for that training log? And basically, what it led to was a face to face check in.
Checking in with one of the member of the team that was easier for her to be able to help us document it as opposed to this person just sucks at taking records, we’re going to exclude them or not allow them to be a part of it because they can’t keep records. So, what I found is again, just being flexible, and being able to see what’s going to work for the team, what’s going to work for that individual learner’s success that’s taking a part in it.
So, with Cohen, what we were finding was if he got too many mealworms, he was just looking for mealworms as reinforcement, and if we didn’t know that the next session that played heavily into the success of the session, but we had to figure out what was working for him. So, then basically it was, ” Hey, Amy, I’m going to leave 10 mealworms up here for you to be able to use as enrichment, only use five of them, so I can use five more for him.” So that, again, that face to face time was more successful for Cohen and for Amy as a member of the team. Amy was extremely busy running around, running multiple departments, so being able to hone it in and making her environment easier for her to be successful was important.
So, it, it really greatly fluctuates team to team and what’s going to work best. Sometimes I’ve been a part of teams that everybody has their own notebook. We all take notes about the session, and then at the end of the week, we compare those notes in those sessions, so that we can come check back in and say, ” I saw that session as a win. What didn’t you see about that session that was a win? Oh, you got to the part of the bucket that had all the thorny thistle in it with a blackberry, yeah, I can understand why you thought that part of the session wasn’t fun because you were getting stabbed in the hand as you’re reinforcing. So, let’s make it more positive for you, and I’ll feed the thorny stuff out and you can get this.”
So, every team is going to function a little bit differently and being able to meet everybody where they’re at is important. Nowadays, everybody wants technology and they want to be able to text stuff back and forth, but then it gets lost in the text chain.
It just really fluctuates team to team. So, I wish I could give like one solid thing, I’m like, “Yeah, go for this.” But it really, it just varies. I have one member of our team in our department that loves to be able to have their enrichment calendars on Microsoft Excel. It’s great. It’s easy to be able to track, OB positive, or they didn’t interact with it and it’s super easy.
Another member of the team would curse at me if I said, “You have to keep your enrichment calendars in Microsoft Excel.” So, what we’ve gone to is they print out, what their calendar is like, they take a picture with the iPad and then we have a digital record of it, and they can get rid of the paper one and getting rid of the paper one was all they wanted to do.
They’re like, “I have binders and binders of these enrichment calendars. I can’t stand it. It takes up so much space.”
All right, great. Here’s an iPad. Take a picture of it. It’s uploaded into our system. Everybody’s happy then. AZA is happy because you have documentation, I can look back, our director of training can look back, and everybody can see it. So, it just really, it’s important to meet the individuals where they are to help them be successful.
[00:46:26] Emily: Absolutely. And I love your answer. I was not expecting you to give a tidy little formulaic answer. I was expecting you to have the answer that you do, that’s functional that actually works for you, and meeting your learners where you’re at is absolutely a beautiful response.
And I think it’s a really important one for people to hear because a lot of times when we’re talking to colleagues about data collection in working with clients, one of the concern that we hear over and over again is my clients are never going to do that.
And I’m like, “Yeah, okay. So, find out what they will do.”
And a lot of times that looks like clients noping out of data collection. And then they’re like, “Ah, we had the setback.”
And we’re like, “Cool. What are the patterns of this setback?”
And they’re like, “We have no idea. Oh, that’s why you wanted us to do data collection. Isn’t it? Maybe we should do that now.”
So, letting people discover for themselves why it’s valuable, and why it helps them, and actually serves them well, and letting our learners have control over how they decide to do data collection, and what works best for them is the most successful strategy, right?
Yeah, I love it. I love it. Okay. So our, we have a program called PETPro, which is for behavior professionals who are wanting to reach their professional goals in our program, and we give them the opportunity to ask questions of our guests, and the biggest question that we got for you, you already answered but I’m still going to ask it because I think you can probably answer it, I think the repetition is valuable here.
So, the question was, how much does a stable and familiar environment matter when you start training? And does your team start cooperative care training in the animal’s kind of natural setting, and then transport it to different places that you need to use it? Or do you start training them in a neutral location?
[00:48:22] Kyle: That’s a great question. I have a couple different examples I can hit on it with.
One example was when I first got the job at the Children’s Zoo, there was a 20, 20-year-old Gotland pony who had Cushing’s and needed to have blood draws. And so, what was important for me was to see all the different ways that the systems and setups that it had been done with and be able to pull that animal out of those systems to be able to help them be successful, and not inherit the different cues, or the different biases, or histories that learner had in that environment.
So, in a case like that an animal with 20 plus years of experience, both successful and unsuccessful blood drives. It was important for me to take that animal out of the environment, and shape something completely new to help her be successful in the short period of time that I was given to allow her to be successful.
And in that case, it served us really well to change the environment really quickly, but not do it so drastically that I had to spend time on conditioning a new environment, but it was more about saying, “Hey, we’re just going to take some of the stuff, and just change the picture a little bit more.”
So, rather than doing it outside in a little shoot location, or in the middle of your big corral where you have different competing reinforcers.” Are the donkeys getting more food than me? Did that crow just drop something delicious for me to snack on?” Let’s pull you inside the stall with the door open, you have access to leave, you can get your normal diet, we’re not restricting any of that. And being able to basically teach, everybody has different terminology for it, but for her, she learned how to be able to control the touching on and off, and so we had her put her forehead on a tennis ball and she would get a conjugate schedule of reinforcement that a continuous rate, and when the vet was touching in a certain spot, she would get a higher magnitude. And she learned really quickly, if I pull my head off the tennis ball, the vet’s hands come off, I can express I’m uncomfortable. And we really just struck gold with that, because this animal that had for a long time either been put into a small space, or it had been haltered and sedated, it was really eye opening to see how fast she was able to say, “I’m now in control of this, I get to tell you what to do?” but it was only just tweaking, literally bringing her into her stall instead of another environment saying this is place, she’s comfortable, she knows that food happens here, she has a positive association with us coming and going, and we can shape from here. So, on one element, sometimes you do have to start in a different location.
Another story or example would be, one of our giraffes receives chiropractic care. Her name is Sarah. And Sarah has this wonderful habit of trying to do the reenactment from Jurassic Park, where the dinosaur stands up on its hind two legs, be able to rip the branch off from the top of the tree.
Sarah is massive for a female giraffe. She’s a little over 17 ft tall. She’s bigger than some male giraffe, and she still will literally jump to try and get the tops of these trees. And so, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on her pelvis and her lower spine, and we work really closely with an equine vet, Dr. Kerry, who is again folded into our team, she is an integral member of our team. She has taught us so much, some really cool, amazing things. And she wants to be a part of the training picture, she doesn’t want the training picture to hinge on her. So, she would actually come every three weeks in between treatments to practice and run through what we needed to prepare the animals for skill wise.
And what we were working on is Sarah already has a lateral move into the fence. So basically, she can parallel park herself to the fence that allows us basically a lateral view of her body. And from that, again constructionally speaking, that lateral movement doesn’t mean we’re trimming your hooves, that lateral movement doesn’t mean you’re automatically getting an injection, but that it just means you’re presenting this part of your body to us.
And from there, we were able to teach an assent behavior where we hold our hand out, Sarah moves her head, her neck, her shoulder, her part of her body that we’re asking into our hand. And so, that’s her being able to provide one layer of permission to us to be able to touch her. And we train this behavior outside with them on exhibit, and behavior is going great, we’ve done a few adjustments. And then the giraffe barn needs a brand new roof, which means the giraffe are stuck inside for a couple of weeks while the roof goes on. And Dr. Kerry comes for an adjustment, we had never done any adjustments inside. We had never practiced any adjustments inside, but because Sarah had the ability, and the skill to do the lateral move in to be able to parallel park herself, the behavior was actually stronger in the new location because all of the environmental cues, Dr. Kerry being present, the ladder, the trainer, the moving, the behavior happened, like I said, it was faster, it was cleaner, it was without any issues. Inside in a place that we have never practiced before, but because Sarah knew what the environment was asking for her, she could nail it without an issue.
And Sarah loves to be right. There is, she is convinced a hundred percent of the time she is correct, and, we always say the learner is never wrong, but there are certain times that Sarah is just 10 steps ahead of where she needs to be. So, the fact that we could see her just light up like, “Oh, I know what they need me to do!” And just boom, swings her hip in, it was so enthusiastic that we had to put in the extra safety precaution of Dr. Kerry clipping her ladder to the fence so that when Sarah pushes into the fence, the ladder doesn’t not make contact to the fence anymore, because she did it with such excitement for that behavior.
And so, again it really does vary from time to time, what your learner needs is going to sometimes dictate it. But other times, if you really are empowering your learner and making it so that the learner is not dependent on the trainer, is not dependent on the environment, but owns those skills and knows, “Oh, I know I can do that here.” You see this joy light up, again, that safety light up from them, that they know what they can do. And then there’s other times where because we train constructionally, if we all of a sudden need Sarah to move in a little bit more specifically, she has the skill and the components to help her be successful.
So, we can say, “No, I need you to move your hind left foot closer to the fence.”
She goes, “Oh, why don’t you just say that I can move my hind left foot independently of all my other four feet.”
So, it’s really amazing to see how we can train and give the animal skills so that if it does fall apart, or if it does, have some bit of difficulty to it, have all these other component-based skills that we can reprogram with a learner to say, “Hey, you just need to move your left foot and you’re there.”
“Oh, okay. I can do that. No problem.” So, it’s, again, it really, constructionally speaking, if you train nonlinearly, you can see the learner own those skills and be proud of those skills. And so, it doesn’t, it’s really hard for some people to understand that the behavior doesn’t belong to you. You may have helped shape it, but ultimately the learner is responsible and owns that behavior. And that’s something that Lisa said to me eight years ago that has just stuck with me ever since.
[00:54:55] Emily: I love that so much and I’m super jelly that you and Lisa get to hang out with giraffes and get giraffe hugs and stuff because I have not gotten a giraffe hug before, and I feel like I’m worse off because of it.
[00:55:09] Kyle: It is special. A lot of giraffes, they have a huge lobe in their brain that is dedicated solely to their sense of smell. And so, oftentimes when you feel them come over and you feel this deep breath in and they’re smelling you and they’re saying hi, they’re also checking you in a sense, we obviously know with dogs, they have this incredible sense of smell, they can smell all different types of diseases. They can smell our stress on us. But imagine the lobe that giraffes have on their brain, their brain that’s dedicated to the sense of smell. You can’t hide anything from a giraffe, they see into your treat pouch. They know exactly how much food you have left in your treat pouch.
They know what type of food you have in your treat pouch, again, the giraffe training team is one that I have always loved being a part of, I’ve been a part of multiples and they just, they keep you on your toes. They’re the ultimate teacher. And one of the behaviors that we had trained them is this hug.
And the hug is just so impressive because again, the giraffe is making the choice to lower its head to your level on the ground and be able to target basically their chin to your chest. And so, they pull you in and this embrace that you, there, there is nothing else like it to feel embraced by a giraffe, to feel them humble you in their size.
It is very special. And so, I do highly encourage people that if you get the opportunity to be hugged by a giraffe, you should, if the opportunity is not present, do not go and seek it out. Giraffes have a lot of power, especially in their head, especially in their legs. Don’t go running out to your local zoo, respect the training that has happened there.
Again, the person who’s in charge of the giraffes at our facility, Elise has done a really amazing job at their program and has been able to speak at IMATA as well as ABMA about the program that has been built there and about how each giraffe has its own individualized training plan because it’s a whole life plan for that individual.
And it literally starts with what is in their training bucket. The giraffe that I’ve worked with, Eve, loves green beans. If you offer Sarah green beans, they will come raining down on your head. If they are free green beans, Sarah will eat them readily. She will not work for green beans. Sarah has a seasonal flavor profile, so sometimes in the fall she really likes her corn.
And then, summertime, it’s a little bit more sweet potatoes and it’s every individual is given that opportunity to express what’s reinforcing to them. Interestingly enough, the fact that usually blows people’s minds is the giraffes, they get bananas, but they don’t like them peeled. They have to have the peel on them because bananas without the peel are slimy and gross, so don’t try to offer that to the herd that we work with because they do not like slimy bananas. I
[00:57:30] Emily: That is adorable. Okay. So, I could keep talking about drafts for a very long time, but instead we should probably move on to the next part of the interview. And this last section are questions that I ask all of our guests. So, I just like to hear how everybody answers the same questions. So, the first one is what is one thing that you wish people knew about either the topics we’ve been discussing today, your profession, or enrichment, any of the above.
[00:58:00] Kyle: I think what’s really important for me to try to help to stress with people nowadays, is it’s really hard not to become an armchair expert when it comes to animals, and the training of animals, and the care for animals. The best example that I usually can think of is the video that kind of circulates on social media of the two gorillas fighting, and somebody says, “Where are the zookeepers?”
And to think that the zookeepers are just going to converge on that situation, and gently take the gorilla by the hand, and walk them to the corner, and ask them about their feelings, it talks about understanding what really goes on into this field and what keepers are feeling and what keepers are told not to feel.
They’re not empowered to be vulnerable and show their soft sides. They’re not empowered to talk to a lot of the naysayers that have really old, negative, outdated information. And I experienced that a lot in the marine mammal field. It, it was a time that Blackfish was really circulating widely. And while it’s important for there to be oppositions to a lot of the stuff that we do, that people that are keeping our ethics in check, it’s really easy to exploit people’s feelings on things.
And so, one thing I encourage people to do. Is if you do feel a certain type of way about animals in human care, animals in captivity, is find the facilities that are closest to you that are highly regulated, highly recognized, and go and talk to the people that take care of those animals. There is nothing more they want to do than share those animals. And there’s a lot of times that you hear people in the field talk about, “I got into animals because I don’t want to work with people.” And every time I would meet a dog trainer that would say that it’s like I, I would hurt for those dogs, because I know that those trainers are missing a huge component of that element, which is the owners. The people that they’re trying to connect with their dog.
And ultimately what we serve as animal care professionals is we serve as alien translators. We’re speaking for these animals that don’t have a voice, and we’re trying to connect them with people that want to listen, that want to care, but we have to find the frequency that those people want to listen and want to care about them. And I think with the way that the world is today, getting people to care and understand about species and connecting them with the people that take care of those animals is what I wish we did a better job as in the field as a whole.
A great example I talk about is giraffes. A lot of people aren’t aware that giraffes population are plummeting. And, but what they are really aware of is elephants. Elephants are endangered. So, there’s about half a million elephants on the continent of Africa, and everybody’s aware of the critically endangered numbers.
There are less than 100,000 giraffe, maybe even less than that now, on it, on the continent of Africa, and that’s it. And I would always tell people I would love to be able to take the giraffe that I work with, put them on a plane, take them to Africa, and let them be out and do their giraffe thing.
But the reality is those animals are going to be scared. They could be stuck in a snare. They could be poached, they could be injured, and I can work really hard where I am to make sure that my giraffes are never scared, that they’re never hungry, that they are never cold. Those little things I can control, but what’s happening out in the world right now is that’s not really the case.
And there are a lot of institutions that work really hard to make a difference in what’s going on. So, it’s not with giraffes, like it’s not just controlling the ivory, but it’s about being able to network with the people that live alongside giraffe, and that’s what the most successful conservation groups are doing is they’re doing on the ground work. Something like vaccinating a goat herd, or a cattle herd protects that herd from disease that could possibly have wiped them out before, that farmer then turns and looks at a giraffe and doesn’t see a beautiful, majestic individual that I know at my zoo, they see a way to feed their family. And that’s a big reality shift for a lot of people to understand that. That is no longer individual, that’s a means to keep my family alive. And so, I just encourage people that when you see the stuff that is meant to evoke emotion on social media, that you take that minute to step back and think, “Is this video’s goal to get me to feel a certain type of way without giving me all of the facts and all the information?”
And so that’s why I always go back to that gorilla story of, where are the zookeepers? What are we expecting these new keepers to do? What are we expecting them to step in and intervene? Are you understanding that’s a part of, possibly that animal’s culture, that there could be a small discrepancy that male was actually being really aggressive to a younger, less dominant animal, and that’s just something that they have to work out? That the silverback’s job is to make sure that he looks over the whole group and the dynamics of that group. I think that’s something I just, I wish that our field did better.
There are so many people that love being able to dig into those zoo shows, the behind the scenes, and I think that more zoos need to open themselves up to that and show them behind the curtain, show them what goes into these animals that, that’s what people’s lives are. It’s a field that is built on passion. It’s not a field that’s built on money or fame or anything like that, but it’s because people truly care and they give their everything. They give up time with their families. They give up holidays. They stay late. They miss, stuff for really important things. And that, that I think, it’s a really long rant about that. But I think ultimately, I wish that people could see what really goes on behind the scenes for zoos and understand that the people that are, the majority of people are doing the best that they can.
And when you have the COVID sensation of Tiger King out there, it just takes a couple to give the industry a bad name, and ultimately that’s can change and suede a lot of people. And so, when I was working with marine mammals, again, I would bring people behind the scenes. I would show them a training session. I would get them to meet the animals and see the stuff that we’re doing. Any chance that I had, I was empowered by the management team to bring people back, to show them what we’re doing. And I wanted them to understand that. And it wasn’t just, you saw a 20-minute animal presentation that’s all those animals have.
You don’t see the four training sessions a day. You don’t see the dive team going in and scrubbing the pool. You don’t see the person who’s here 24 hours a day monitoring the water quality of those animals. There’s a lot more to it, and it just takes that step of reaching out and talking to those people to make that connection and having a little bit more ownership of your local, community zoos, or sanctuaries.
[01:03:51] Emily: And I’m going to lend my position as the host of this podcast to support everything that you just said. One of the things that’s really important to us at Pet Harmony is teaching epistemology, which is basically, the theory of how we know things. So learning, how do we know that what we believe is true?
And applying critical thinking skills to the information that we receive. Because what you’re talking about has been a lifelong passion of mine. And in our, I believe, third episode, like one of the very beginning of the podcast, we brought on Dr. Eduardo Fernandez and he taught us the term theramorphic, which is taking the viewpoint of the animal rather than approaching animal care and animal welfare from the human anthropocentric point of view, taking a theramorphic point of view is considering the wellbeing of the animal.
Do animals have the freedom and are they empowered to live as closely as they would in the wild, but without the dangers that the wild presents for them? And do they have a voice? Do, are we letting them have a say in what happens to them? And are we actually considering what’s actually in their best interests, not what feels warm and fuzzy to us?
And so, I want to be careful about how I agree with you, because I also think it’s important to celebrate the fact that people are passionate about wanting to make the world a better place and wanting to save the planet and save animals, that’s super important, and that is a, an important and wonderful first approximation that should be honored.
And also, if you think a solution is simple and straightforward, and you think why don’t they just do this, or all they need to just do is, or this is, blanket statement, bad, or this is, blanket statement, the way to do things. You’re probably missing a whole lot of information, and it’s time to take the step to the next approximation, which is learning from the people who have devoted their lives to what you care about. Yeah, I am a big supporter and I think we all at Pet Harmony are a big supporter of replacing sentimentality and those emotional manipulations that happen with a theramorphic view of animal welfare, not just in zoos, but also with companion animals and all of the different ways that we interact with animals in our care. I fully support and agree with what you’re saying.
[01:06:25] Kyle: I appreciate that.
[01:06:26] Emily: You’re welcome. Next question. What is one thing you’d love to see improved in your field?
[01:06:31] Kyle: Technology. I think for a long time, we have relied on a lot of manual labor, and a lot of just physicality to get stuff done. And I think there is a huge component of technology to getting things done. And there’s a great example. I was just talking to a manager from another zoo that found these Bluetooth temperature and humidity readers and he has them in the exhibits and all he has to do is walk by with his phone and boom, it gives him the entire month, hour by hour breakdown for every single day about the temperature and humidity in that environment.
And that takes away easily 15 minutes a day for that keeper to have to sit there and manually write down these records. And then if something came up to have to sit there and go through pages and pages of records to figure out, was there a temperature dip? And so, being able to incorporate more technology into the field, I think is one key element that’s missing.
I think that there are so many brilliant minds in the tech field and there are, especially this young generation that’s coming up every time I talk with them and have an opportunity to interact with them, I want to stress that it is not about trying to pull you into this field to help you be next to me and clean up poop, it’s about if you can think of a way to program robotics or an automatic feeder to be able to get stuff to these animals in a new, fun, diverse way. Whether it be being able to allow a carnivore to chase a mechanical ball that spits out chunks of meat, that allows that to happen or, my lifelong dream is to have a zip line that’s automated for giraffe so that every two hours there is a new piece of food that’s out moving the Savannah that’s triggering the giraffe to go to another part of its exhibit to go and do something.
I currently work with a mini horse that I think would be amazing at being able to learn games on a tablet and being able to do match to sample games on a tablet, being able to touch it. She’s just brilliant. And I think that there is a technological element that is missing from the zoo field at this current time.
And I, I just see that it’s going to take one person that’s going to see it because again, what person is going to want to deprive an animal from an iPad, right? And again, it’s not saying that technology is the answer, but I think that there’s a big element that’s missing from it, to be able to see.
There’s a really cool study that I recall of showing that chimps have a higher memory recollection, and being able to remember patterns and numbers that just puts people to shame, but it’s not talked about. And so, I think when you can have a facility that shows exactly what we were talking about, that animal’s natural ability to be able to come over, have access to the reinforcer for taking part, and being able to do something, interacting with the tablet, as well as being able to go out and forage in their exhibit for the same type of food, to give them that choice and freedom, but also saying ” Hey, we understand at the end of the day you’re confined in this space.”
That’s just the reality of what we do. And a big part of my job is to recognize that I can expand to acres and acres of land, but I can expand your mind. I can create new opportunities, and give you new neural pathways, and new ways to access reinforcers and interact with your life that may not be available to you in other ways. That’s more or less for free. It doesn’t cost me anything to train them. So, I think if we can get more technology in the field, that there’s a lot of really cool opportunities that can come from that.
[01:09:35] Emily: That’s super cool. I would love to see that as well. All right, next. What do you love about what you do?
[01:09:40] Kyle: Meeting the animals. I love being able to meet the animals and see their personalities come out and I am so lucky and so privileged to be able to do this job. That, not being able to have these animals a part of the conversations to speak their voice in all this. Like I said, it always feels like a little bit of an injustice to hear like their side of things and to hear them talk about, how big of a fool, like you wouldn’t believe how long it took Kyle to figure this out about me.
So, I think for me, I love being able to meet the animals and see their personalities come out and shine and then connect them with people. One of the animals I work with, Slider, is a miniature steer who’s just, he’s an incredible teacher. And he came to the zoo because he was an oopsie. So, his dad was a Spanish fighting bull, who jumped the fence and mated with his mom, who was a miniature Zebu, and thus Slider was formed. And not only did he have this incredible background of species, er, breeds coming together, but he was born with a crooked jaw, which meant that he couldn’t nurse from mom and had to be hand reared.
Because he was hand reared, he didn’t realize that he’s a thousand-pound hoofstock. So, he wanted to cuddle with people, he didn’t understand why people didn’t want to cuddle with him. So, he would throw his head around and ultimately became dangerous as a thousand pounds. And we needed to be able to train him for a hoof trim, and if you Google, bovine hoof trim, you’re going to see some really nasty, gnarly images of that.
But again, our team came together and said, we can do better. But there wasn’t a lot of resources to show you how to positively train bovine for their hooves to be done. So, we took again, our experiences and put it together and created basically a bovine version of a giraffe hoof trim. So we found a block so that he could basically lift his leg up and have his foot be on a block so that he could trim it.
And again, reaching out to the experts, we were laughed at. Cows physically can’t stand on three feet. It’s impossible for them, blah, blah, blah. I’m like, all right, fine. So, we have to find a way to cater to help him. And for Slider, we had to go through at least 10, 12 versions of different types of blocks to let him be successful.
But he never stopped trying. He never gave up, never got frustrated. He just constantly was like, “I want to do this. You guys just aren’t giving me the right tools to do it.” And what’s so cool is I, there was a guest one day at the zoo who just again happened to be passing by, she’s a little girl, her name is Miriam.
And we’re talking to her about this new pygmy hippo that just came to the zoo. And she goes, “Why is he out? He should be in his mandatory, 60-day quarantine period.” How does an eight-year-old know what the quarantine period is at an AZA zoo for a pygmy hippo? And from there, I just welcomed her in, took her on behind the scenes tours, introducing her animals left and right.
And again, she has met so many animals at the zoo. She has been hugged by a giraffe. She has met koalas, and every time she comes back. And the best part of this, she brings members of her friends and family all the time. “How’s Slider? can we go see Slider? Let’s go see Slider. Now, can I go say hi to Slider? Where’s Slider at today?” And she loves that cow so much. She loves that steer so much.
And what was really cool was we were training Slider for his voluntary injection. And what that meant was that he would again do the lateral move into the side of the fence. We would hold out an object for him to be able to move in and push into the syringe so that you don’t have the vet chasing around trying to puncture really tough cattle hide for an injection. And we had trained it so well that this animal who had such a negative history of knocking people over could allow an 8-year-old to hold the device there for him to move his shoulder into, and she got to buy into part of that. And so, to see Slider connect with this 8 year old who just loves him so much, it is one of the most rewarding parts of my job that I could have. And to connect more and more people and to spread the message of these animals, unique personalities and life experiences is by far one of my favorite parts of the job.
[01:13:21] Emily: So, what I’m hearing is in about 15 years we’re gonna bring her onto the podcast because she will have done lots of extraordinary things by then, I’m sure.
[01:13:28] Kyle: A hundred percent. I’ve already been talking with her mom. This is where I think again, she’s eight years old, this is where we should start to look at for her for college and like this program and make sure she gets onto this internship. She’s just, she’s such a special kid with such a unique perspective on life.
She doesn’t ask for birthday presents. She asks for conservation projects. She makes t shirts for conservation groups. So, she’s such an incredible kid. So yes, I hope in 15 years you get her on here and she can talk about all the cool stuff that she’s done.
[01:13:55] Emily: Amazing. Okay. What are you currently working on? If people want to work with you more or learn from you, where can they find you?
[01:14:04] Kyle: I would reach out to me, my email which I’m sure there’ll be some way for us to provide. Or if it’s Instagram, I, Instagram stands out to a lot of people. But just reach out, just start a conversation. The big thing that we’re working on right now is working with the human ABA world about the work that we’re doing with animals, and being able to share with a certain group and community about how you can still have a nonverbal individual, be able to give you permission to be able to do something that’s really invasive.
And then they can also withdraw that when they’re not comfortable without being able to say, “I’m not comfortable.” That’s our work that we’re doing with animals is pushing the boundaries of what should be expected in animal care, that the human field has started to catch on to that and welcome us into learning more from us and creating a dialogue. Because for so long, I’m sure many of you have encountered this, that, there’s a difference between human behavior and animal behavior and that we should not talk and share stories and communicate, but there is so much that parallels, the ABA human world with what we do with animal training. Right down to the same type of, just the same interactions that we have at our facilities with people and not being able to think about what the learner is experiencing, not thinking about giving the trainer the skills to help the learner to be able to transition to whatever they need to do.
And so currently working with the ABA community, that’s the constructional approach community, has been incredible and being able to speak at the last two ABAIs has been really eye opening about again, the different perspectives and how much we can learn from each other and pull together. That is currently what we’re trying to really navigate is talking about, beyond the warm and fuzzies of the animals and the cool videos that we can show, but that we’re also teaching people how to be able to work with these animals and inspiring people how to work with these animals in a different approach.
Linear training is been around for a very long time. That’s what we all know. That’s what we’ve all been taught on but being able to look at things from a nonlinear approach, from, getting data and looking at all the different contingencies that are bearing down on your clients, or on your bosses, or on your coworkers, and being able to understand how all those are interacting.
It’s been really, it’s been fun. So, I, email Instagram, however you would feel comfortable reaching out to me. I do take that to heart, and I do really mean that because growing up and saying that I want to be a zookeeper, I want to work with animals. I was mocked and made fun of and put down even by college professors.
And I do take it really seriously when somebody is interested in the field or wants to know more, they have a kid, or a cousin, or a friend that wants to be able to break into the field, but doesn’t know how, doesn’t know what that looks like. So, I want to make myself a resource for people.
[01:16:33] Emily: I think that’s so important. I share that history of shame about my field. Like I’ve been passionate about animals since I was a very young child. And this is all I’ve, my whole life, this is what I wanted to do. And I always felt a certain amount of shame about working with animals instead of humans is not a real job or it’s not important enough.
Or I felt like my passion for social justice wasn’t really aligned with my profession. And it took me a very long time to, to realize that when we say that social justice is intersectional, that includes the work that we do with nonhumans, for many reasons, one of which is that what we learn from working with nonhumans helps us be better at how we treat other humans. And how we view human behavior and human learners. So, I’m right there with you on that journey as well.
All right. So that wraps it up for us. Thank you so much for joining us today. It has been such a pleasure speaking with you. I really love all the work that you’re doing. Keep up the work, keep up the good work and I hope we’ll have a opportunity to work with you again soon.
[01:17:42] Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. I again want to thank you all as well because it is a humbling and an honor to be able to be a part of this when you are going to somehow see my name in picture with all of these other incredible people in the field that have been progressing and moving the field forward. It is very reinforcing to me, I will say.
So, thank you so much for the honor and for requesting that I come and share all the cool stuff that I’ve been a part of and the amazing team of people and animals that I’ve gotten to share my life with. So, I’m deeply honored and humbled to, to have been able to join you all. So, thank you.
[01:18:12] Emily: Absolutely. It’s our pleasure.
[01:18:14] Allie: I resonated so much with Kyle saying everything he’s done since third grade has been for this. Except for the age, same here. Everything I’ve done since I was 13 has led me here. And one of the things Kyle said that really struck me, especially because he said it so easily that I know this is just the way he normally speaks, he said, “let the animal be successful.” And that really puts the onus on us as the trainer to figure out how to let our learner’s shine. I am absolutely going to try to incorporate that phrase into my regular vernacular. Next week, we will be talking about are necessary evils really necessary?
Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.
Thank you for listening and happy training.