I don’t want to sound like an ambulance chaser by delving into a discussion of the recent fatal attack by a killer whale against its trainer at Sea World, but I feel compelled to comment because this tragedy speaks to the rise in aggression, in dogs as well, and has direct bearing on how NDT views the nature of dogs in particular, but also animals in general. In fact, everything about the incident at Sea World runs in parallel to what’s going on in the dog world.
The first thing to say of course is compassion for the unspeakable horror the victim must have endured, as well as for the suffering of her family. The trainer was obviously full of life, she loved her work, and the world needs more people like her who fearlessly pursue their life’s dream. And I’m also not going to drum away on the obvious point that keeping a highly social animal, adapted to the vastness of the open ocean, in a small tank might be a bad idea. As one Orca advocate put it, “We don’t belong in their world and they don’t belong in ours.” And finally in cases such as these, for any of us that work with animals, humility rather than sanctimony is always in order. On a much smaller scale I’ve been through my share of training disasters, like the time a dog bolted from me, sunk its teeth into a cow, and started a stampede that drove over twenty tons of cattle back and forth across a quiet country lane (and this was during the pre-SUV era of tiny cars such as the Pinto and Honda Civic) and it was only sheer luck that no one was killed. So I know all too well that sinking feeling of helplessness and morbid dread when everything goes south in one split second, accompanied by the futile feeling of desperation that can so clearly be seen in the trainers at poolside, frantically slapping the water and trying to entice the Orca to them for a “cookie”. My sympathies are with them as well.
But there does unfortunately remain an important lesson to be drawn. As we all know there’s usually more to be learned from failure than success. One motivational speaker put it this way: it’s okay to fall, just make sure you always fall forward. And over the course of my career in dogs I’ve learned to always “fail” forward by never indulging in the luxury of telling myself a dog story. So one of the main reasons I’m writing this commentary is because it seems to me that in the aftermath of this incident, the PR machine at Sea World is hard at work crafting a whopper of a fish story.
The usual spin on these kinds of animal acts gone awry is a poly-sided bromide, one side being a dose of hard cold wild animal realism: “These (bears/Orcas/tigers) are wild animals and wild animals are unpredictable.” Therefore we should view trainers of dangerous predators such as Orcas as if they are aquanauts, the theme park equivalent of astronauts; and as such they knowingly assume the risk and understand the danger, all of which is in service to advancing the general public’s awareness and appreciation of the animals of the deep, just as astronauts quicken the public’s awareness and appreciation of space exploration.
And then another side of the spin is the romanticized version, as in: “That tiger wasn’t attacking Roy; it was trying to stop him from falling and hurting himself.” (I want to point out just how precise a control of its body an animal can have. I once took care of a large, overweight border collie/cross “Columbo” that would run across the yard and if I wasn’t paying attention, leap from the ground and delicately “buss” me on my eyeball. All I felt was a little smudge of wetness on my eye being that he was so gentle at the moment of making contact. And if it happened when I was wearing sunglasses he would slightly knock my glasses askew because the point of impact apparently remained perfectly calibrated for the lens of my eye. It was annoying, but I couldn’t help but marvel at the kind of physical dexterity Columbo manifested that an NFL wide receiver or principal dancer in the Russian Ballet would envy. So needless to say I don’t think a tiger would try to break someone’s fall by crushing their skull and I don’t think the Orca was playing with the trainer either.)
Eventually, the third side of damage-control, PR spin will end up being “pilot error”, although the reports seem to be conflicting. Was the trainer violating prescribed policy by being in the water with the Orca, or in the shallow pool, or was she outside the pool and on the coping when the attack occurred? I’m not sure what actually happened. However, the official version from Sea World seems to be in: the Orca seized the trainer by her hair and then violently thrashed her around and dragged her under because it was “curious” about her pony tail.
So does injecting the energy perspective into all of this shed any light? Yes I believe it does.
What strikes me the most when I watch the videos of Sea World performances, is the incredible degree of sensory stimulation to which these animals are exposed. In the audience’s mind the trainers are just dancing, – entertaining. But to the Orcas, arching out of the water and facing them on the fantail, it might seem that the trainers are writhing provocatively in black and white shiny wetsuits (if I’m not mistaken a human being is about the size of a seal). Perhaps the input isn’t being absorbed as simply good theater that it’s intended to be. Just as I always advise dog owners not to let their children wave their hands in a dog’s face or run past the puppy’s crate, I know I’d feel very uneasy sashaying around in the face of a killer whale. So the question is: since sensory input energizes the nervous system, and Orcas are bombarded with huge doses of it, where does all this energy go? I do know that in the deepest most primal recess of animal consciousness, when there is a high rate of sensory input, it means either danger or dinner; predator or prey; and either way the “computer” commands BITE.
The other thing that strikes me from watching the performances is what might the Orcas be experiencing as they perform their various routines. In the trainers mind they are conditioning the Orca to perform tricks, simple conditioned responses. The “cue” is the input, the behavior is the output. And in the trainer’s mind the output of behavior, no matter how complex the linked chain of behaviors, it nonetheless merely equals the input: in short the animal mind is basically a learning machine. But behavior is fundamentally about the transmission of energy, and energy has a quantity as well as a QUALITY to it, and so the relevant question becomes: what is the Orca FEELING when the trainer riding on its back points at people in the audience and then it flicks water in their faces by a sudden swoosh of its powerful tail? For example, if I were to condition my cat to flick its tail at a dog, I would worry if I’m inciting the cat toward feeling “aggressive” toward that dog.
Of course, the vast majority of times, with the greatest percentage of Orcas, the performance routines go off beautifully, and so this supposed primal command to bite by computer apparently isn’t being given. Or is it?
It’s my contention that the question, ‘why are Orcas the stars of aquatic amusement parks’ – – is also the answer to the question a to why most Orcas don’t maul their trainers while some do. Killer whales excel at these performances for the reason some attack, and most don’t. In other words, so far “Tilikum” has been characterized as a 12,000 pound Orca with a big problem; this may be his third victim, whereas an energy theory characterizes Tilikum as a big Orca with a 12,000 volt problem.
THE ANIMAL MIND IS AN ENERGY CIRCUIT; it absorbs sensory input and converts it into physical and psychic energy. Physical and psychic energy evolved to do work, to overcome resistance so as to move energy throughout an ecosystem. This is what truly drives evolution. It is more fundamental than the matter of gene replication or even survival. If an organism can capture, harness and move energy through an ecosystem, it thrives.
And in order for an energy circuit to reliably repeat itself, there must be an “emotional battery”, its purpose being as a reservoir for the sublimation of simple, pure emotion (pure emotion is attracted to a preyful essence) so as to be converted into unresolved emotion and stored as stress, with this stored energy being a built-up degree of force that can do work, but it is simultaneously information on how to align with others in order to do such work. (I.E. synchronize with others so as to overcome more complex and stronger forms of resistance.) This means that the purpose of sociability isn’t for companionship and for the pleasures of affection, as wonderful derivatives of sociability as these indeed are. Rather, the purpose of emotion, affection, love and its first cousin stress, is to do the work of evolution.
Meanwhile Sea World is peddling a Disney story that “love makes the world go round,” “We are one with the Killer Whales”, and “Orcas just want to be friends”. “We’re really good to these animals, we love them.” However, the fact remains that because Orcas are predators, this is how they are equipped to perform as they do. I’m no fan of the circus but at least old time Lion tamers cracking the whip, brandishing the chair (and we all knew there was a sniper off stage with a high power rifle) were selling honesty.
When animals are emotionally bonded, such as Killer Whales living in their pod, two, three, four or more synced up into a complex energy circuit, their many emotional batteries become one emotional battery, with this collectivized energy being for the purpose of overcoming more and more complex objects of resistance, – which is really what a complex routine of tricks represents. And interestingly as alluded to above, the featured star players at parks like Sea World are the oceanic equivalents of wolves, i.e. group hunters, such as dolphins and killer whales, and they evolved to herd schools of fish for efficient killing or disorient huge whales that are much larger than they are.
The emotional battery is “ionized” by environmental/sensory inputs so that the body/mind becomes “polarized” in a complementary manner. Thus the animal can align and synchronize with its peers in order to hunt collectively. I would guess that killer whales love synchronized activity for the same reason that dogs love car rides. And the higher the capacity of the emotional battery, the more adaptable the organism because its capacity for synchronization is higher. This then means all stimulation, be it gently petting and stroking the Orca’s tactile sensory regions; visual arousal; audio inputs such as blaring guitar solos and driving bass rhythms, is – in the final analysis – emotional energy. Neurons fire, bio-chemical energy is generated and so we return to the fundamental question: what is this energy “designed” to do? In my view, it is designed to do work, and the work that Orcas evolved to do is to pool their collective batteries in order to hunt.
I’m reminded here of an impromptu experiment Dr. Mech conducted when filming the “White Wolves of Ellesmere Island” with Jim Brandenburg. One can see this for oneself on the National Geographic video of that title. Mech and Brandenburg were set up above the wolf’s den and one afternoon while the wolves seemed fast asleep, Dr. Mech whispered to Jim that he was going to sneak down wind a couple of hundred yards and then let out a howl. Jim got excited; this was going to be an interesting field experiment.
When Mech got into position he began to howl, and he was very good at it because the wolves arose and became very excited. But then to Jim’s amazement, they began to fight, several of them biting and locking up and then tumbling into an alder thicket before they came to their senses. When Mech returned, Jim filled him in and recounted blow by blow what had just happened. And then he turned to Mech expectantly and waited for the interpretation of the results to the experiment. Oddly, Mech had nothing much to say. We had just observed an experiment, the results had been tabulated, and yet no interpretation was forthcoming.
So then, what happened? In my view, the wolves were summoned to a hunt that wasn’t. They got all dressed up but had nowhere to go. Their prey-making impulse, which in social interactions is sublimated into emotionally deflected behaviors via the emotional battery (i.e. mounting, posturing, rub-a-dubbing, rolling, flipping polarity, chase-and-be-chased, deflection onto a common bite object), was in this context not available because they had been suddenly energized for the hunt and yet no prey was available to absorb this sudden arousal of energy. This meant that the only way out for the “charge”, – which is made of compressed prey-making arousal and normally reserved for the large, dangerous prey animal, – was each other, which is why they ended up fighting, or making-prey on each other. Between wolves, this not too big of a problem given that as canines they are endowed with the reflexes of a ninja and can avoid tooth to sensitive body parts, and then even when bitten their tough hide and thick pelt can virtually resist a leather punch. So no harm no foul. Whereas when a dog “flashes” a human, we can’t get out of the way, our soft skin easily tears and a relatively harmless pinch and twist of the incisors can need 20 stitches to close. In other words, over-stimulation can fry the circuitry and cause the batteries to violently dump energy as a survival response.
Currently in dogdom, everyone’s on the lookout for the abusive dog owner, – animal rescue 911 is all the rage on TV. Everyone thinks that the remarkable increase in aggression in dogs is due to abuse, but I believe it’s primarily due to over-stimulation of the emotional battery in conjunction with a romanticized version of what it is to be “one with an animal”. Dogs used to be tied to dog houses in the back yard, and now they’re invited on the bed if not under the covers. And yet the purpose of sociability is not companionship; it’s to move energy, and when no outlet for synchronized group action that can channel all this energy, stored up in the battery, is provided, instinct finds its own way out.
A further clue to what’s going on with the Orcas might prove to be the curled-over dorsal fin that is characteristic of a killer whale in captivity. It has been suggested that this is a physical condition of deterioration, however in a number of videos on-line where the Orca is actually making prey, the fin appears to be firmly upright. One clip shows three Orcas taking out a hapless Pelican that alighted in their pool, and then the videos of the various attacks on people that have been captured, in particular the scene of the Orca taking a “victory” lap with the trainer in its jaws being held by his ankle (2006), – again the fins appear to be perfectly upright. My hunch is that the disposition of this fin might very well correlate to a dog’s tail, with its set and action being configured around a dog’s physical (as well as its emotional) center of gravity: the core of the body/mind as an emotional battery. This would then suggest that being in a small enclosure, especially a hard reflective surface such as a concrete or metal pool brightly painted, would make the Orca feel compressed and curl the tail over, much like a dog with a tucked tail. It doesn’t feel “grounded” but then after the tumultuous download of its battery, just like a dog with the prey in its mouth and trotting along with an unmistakable bounce in its stride, the fin rises as does the dog’s tail. In all these cases, the emotional circuitry, which evolved in service to the fundamental purpose not of sociability, but of moving energy through an ecosystem (which in Orcas as in canines means the hunt), has run to ground. In the Orca’s mind, all that stimulation finally arrived at its energetic endpoint; the hunt has finally hit the stop signal.
I believe that the synchronized actions mimics for Orcas the experience of hunting, just as playing fetch with a dog, or taking a dog for a car ride, does for canines. Group synchronization is the basis of Orca motivation and why they enjoy performing their tricks. But apparently it must prove to be an exercise in frustration, like always praising a dog and getting it worked up and excited so that one day, seemingly out of nowhere, it bites. This is why I stress the concept of an emotional battery, as you can only fill it up so much with energy before it has to start downloading or crash. All input that can’t be conducted through the pure channel then goes into the emotional battery and is stored, – it doesn’t just go away after the lights dim and the crowd goes home. I’m suggesting that performing a back flip for a fish doesn’t constitute resolution of a 12,000 volt problem.
Sea World and learning theorists characterizes the system of training they do as being purely positive, but in the animal mind, the negative equals access to the positive. So even when we’re being 100% motivational (from our point of view), our dog is giving our “eyes,” i.e. our predatory aspect, credit. We are becoming increasingly negative, and if this isn’t grounded in purposeful work from an evolutionary point of view, things can run aground. (If I were to design the costumes at Sea World I would appropriate my design from the rubber workers in Burma. I would outfit the trainers in a garish wet suit with harsh right angles as the design pattern, and shockingly bright colors that hold in graphic relief two menacing eyes prominently featured on the trainers’ back. This might more effectively reflect the energy they project onto the trainers, back at the Orca’s and keep their energies on track and deflected toward the fish in trainer’s hand.)
Over-stimulation, rather than abuse, is why I believe there is a rising rate of aggression in domestic dogs. Owners are pouring so much energy into the relationship, and it’s got nowhere to go. The fact that most dogs can sublimate the energy and become even more intensely friendly is what confuses the real picture of what’s going on. If being positive could stand on its own, if it were possible to be purely positive in a way that meant something to the animal mind, then dolphin training as practiced at Sea World would work in the wide open ocean on free Willy. But the animals must be constrained so that they can perceive the trainer as the negative-as-access-to-the-positive. This is why the social hunters such as dolphins and killer whales are so readily motivated and able to perform amazingly synchronized activities. The hunt is what makes it worth it to an Orca to rocket out of the water, spin three times and then dive back in through a hoop for a fish. This is as close to hunting as it’s ever going to get, unless another unlucky Pelican wanders into its pool.
Orcas are constantly being summoned to a hunt that is never to materialize. And sadly, in some tragic instances, it becomes trick training run amok.