My daughter was invited to the circus last week by a classmate celebrating her 7th birthday. The circus comes regularly to a very nearby venue, but I’d successfully avoided it up to this point. The kids all enjoyed themselves, of course, and were especially excited to see real live elephants and tigers. I remember my own awe as a child being exposed to such creatures.

To say I felt conflicted would be an understatement, especially while watching the lions and tigers perform. It’s hard to know exactly how much of such an act is scripted versus accidental. But a number of those big cats looked genuinely pissed, and the third time one of the females balked at a cue and then ran at the trainer, it did not look choreographed.

Likely all part of the show on some level, but is that even any better?

My three-year-old son pretty much summed up the absurdity of the evening when he exclaimed quizzically, “Look, it’s tigers on stools!”

Why yes, my son. This is how men demonstrate their physical prowess and mental superiority over other living creatures–by making them sit on stools.

Or, in the case of the majestic killer whale, by housing them in fishbowls and training them to splash tourists.

The maiden post to this blog was in response to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World’s Orlando park. It was the third death associated with the bull orca Tilikum, known to tourists as Shamu.

That post was flip in some respects, but the business of keeping killer whales for fun and profit is not. It does speak directly to my problem with gauging the humaneness of a training program purely according to which learning quadrants happen to dominate. And sadly, it speaks to the power of money to distort our judgement.

I think it’s well established that a higher percentage of clicker-trained killer whales actually kill their trainers than do dogs trained by any method. I do not mean that as an indictment of clicker-training.  I mean it as a challenge to the dual myths that A) killer whales are a model of reliable behavior compared to dogs, and B) their handling is a model of humane training.

What we do to killer whales is an atrocity without moral justification, in my opinion. They suffer lives of abject deprivation, void of any genuine opportunities to self-reward. They are prisoners of our selfish desire to engage with an intelligent species that wants little to do with us, absent our trapping and keeping them like lab rats.

Positive reinforcement based operant conditioning has proven utility both within and without the confining walls of zoos and amusement parks. I don’t deny that. I deny the legitimacy of extending the analogy between dogs and killer whales to the point of suggesting the best tools for engaging the latter must also be the best choice for training the former. And to the extent I personally find the level of management involved in captive marine mammal training to be abusive, I think there is some danger associated with modeling dog training practices after that example.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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