Zookeeper Week Zoo-notable: Dragons, Unicorns, Chimeras, & Clickers

How to Train Your Fantastic Beasts by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

How is it the end of National Zookeeper Week already? Another hot summer day, and I cooled off by relaxing next to the A/C unit, re-reading a very cool book about a different type of zoo. Last year I interviewed author and dog trainer Laura VanArendonk Baugh about her book Dragons, Unicorns, Chimera, and Clickers.

It was the meeting of great minds who think alike. Both of us are positive reinforcement trainers, both fantasy geeks (she is a published author of a couple fantasy series, if you want to check some of her books out), our favorite Hogwarts class is Care of Magical Creatures, and both of us are writers (albeit, Laura is a smidge more popular than me). So we had A LOT to talk about when we got together. You are welcome to re-visit the interview on my Zoo-notable podcast.

But as we finished up another fantastic zookeeper week, and I re-read this fun little book, I remembered some of the ideas that struck me that are relevant to zookeepers and animal trainers. So I felt it would be fun to revisit Dragons, Unicorns, Chimera, and Clickers and share some of my favorite ideas.

Laura as fiery red-head

A Zoo of My Dreams

Dragons, Unicorns, Chimeras, and Clickers is such a cute story. Imagine a special zoo opening in your hometown. But instead of lions, and elephants, and penguins, and giraffe, this zoo has Bigfoot, leviathan, gryphons, and jackalopes. Ana is a reporter covering a story on the unique zoo, so she is given a tour around the facility and learns how the keepers train, treat, and work with some of the most remarkable, and fantastical animals you could ever imagine.

Ana learns all about positive reinforcement training, how building trust with the animals, going at their pace, and treating the animals as unique individuals helps keep these magical creatures happy, healthy, and thriving. Animal trainers will smile as they read familiar training situations, but with just a different type of animal. Laura VanArendonk Baugh does a remarkable job of making the behavior of each creature seem realistic, while demonstrating important training principles and showing how even we can incorporate those principles with the animals in our own lives.

Big Idea #1- It’s All Behavior

When we first meet Ana, the reporter, and Marian, the curator at the magical zoo, they head immediately to a fan favorite magical creature that many of us can relate to, the unicorns. Unicorns are basically horses with a horn, right? Probably the idea of training a unicorn doesn’t sound quite so challenging (unless, as the illustrations provided showcase, the unicorn gets their horn stuck on the target ball). But what about a Bigfoot? Or dragons? Or a sea serpent?

Credit: ZJ Bickel (From Dragons, Unicorns, Chimeras, and Clickers)

I’ve encountered many people in my life who have said, “oh, such and such animal can’t be trained.” You fill in the blank– cats, sheep, cows, snakes, fish, wolves, elk… But this reminds me of my discussion with Ken Ramirez, renowned animal trainer and author of The Eye of the Trainer (Listen to the Zoo-notable). He trained 10,000 butterflies (yes, butterflies) to fly across a football stadium on cue within about 3 weeks. So many people would have claimed that would be impossible, but Ken did it, or at least he oversaw the volunteers and trainers who did it.

Ken Ramirez with butterfly

And so, this leads me to remind everyone that training isn’t about “species” or “personalities”. It’s about behavior. Training teaches and modifies behavior. If the animal has behavior, it can be trained.

And THIS reminds me that WE are animals. So, if you think learning something, or achieving a goal is too hard, let me remind you that Ken Ramirez trained butterflies. And Laura shows us that we can train magical creatures. You can do whatever you put your mind to, it’s just behavior!

Big Idea #2- The Right Motivation

After encountering a unicorn training session, Marian and Ana walk over to observe trainer Tanika as she tries to clip the toenails of a creature with the biggest of feet…Sasquatch. Only, Bigfoot doesn’t really want to hold still for the procedure. While it’s not hurting him, Tanika admits the toenail clippers aren’t the most comfortable of tools. How does curator Marian suggest the trainers go about getting Bigfoot to hold still?

“It sounds like  you might need a higher rate of reinforcement,” Marian said. “Click and treat a lot more often, so it’s worth his while to stay even if it’s uncomfortable. It needs to be frequent enough that he doesn’t want to miss out by taking his foot away.”

Marian and Tanika work together and reinforce Bigfoot a lot more often for holding still, even when the nail trimmer isn’t actually clipping his toenails. Eventually, because they have a high value treat history established, Bigfoot knows treats are coming even when they aren’t immediately available, and Tanika is able to complete the process, keeping Bigfoot’s big toenails from becoming a health issue.

What are your Bigfoot toenails? Your challenging situation that needs lots of movitvation?

Have you ever had a challenge that just DOESN’T seem worth the effort? Going to the gym to do a grueling workout? Visiting your relatives and having to hold your tongue when one of them mentions politics? Visiting the doctor for your yearly exam?

If you didn’t go through with the challenge, or you had a horrific time and make a mental note to NOT do that again, chances are you didn’t have a high enough rate of reinforcement. Steve Martin (not the one you’re thinking of, the other Steve Martin) teaches students about putting trust in the bank. Working with animals is like a bank account, but with trust instead of money. We always want enough in our account for the animal be able to perform the behavior we want or need them to. The best way to build a great trust account is to provide enough positive reinforcement to make the behavior worth the animal’s effort.

So, if you aren’t motivated to do what you “should” do (that’s a whole other topic, honestly), perhaps you need to increase your deposits in your trust account and increase your rate of reinforcement. Make the habit, errand, or new behavior worth your effort, and soon you’ll be rocking your challenges, like Tanika clipping Bigfoot’s toenails.

Big Idea #3- We All Need a Zookeeper in Our Lives to Keep Us Moving

After Bigfoot, Marian takes Ana to watch a Loch Ness Monster training session. Ana is curious about why Claire, the trainer, would want to teach the sea serpents physically demanding exercises like high jumps out of the water or fast swims through hoops. Claire explains that the zoo provides all the Loch Ness Monsters’ food, so exercise helps the predators keep in shape.

This reminds me of many other animals at zoos, especially animals that perform in shows or programs. Sure the program is entertaining as it is educational, but why the “showy” behaviors? Well, first and foremost, it’s very enriching, and learning stimulates the animal’s brain. But more importantly, without these high energy behaviors, the animals could get unhealthy, sitting around all day having food basically delivered on a silver platter. So zookeepers come up with ingenuous ways keep the critters moving. Training, enrichment, puzzle feeders, other activities, and yes, even guest enjoyment programs all help with keeping the animals healthy and thriving.

Training for enrichment and health

And once again, we are no different. We live in a society where we can get meals delivered directly to our door without any effort. We have become like zoo animals who don’t have to work as hard for our food. So, we need zookeepers in our lives to motivate us and keep us moving. And that zookeeper…is YOU. You have the power and the know-how to make the changes in your life, make the effort reinforcing, and make the activities fun, engaging, and impactful. (And hey, if you need some ideas, just reference earlier this week for fun workout games: Zookeeper Memory and How to Train Your Dragon Workout).

Big Idea #4- Go at the Pace That Feels Right for You

While observing some absolutely adorable jackalopes, Ana notices the young jackalope Grace takes her sweet time to hop onto the scale. “Why don’t you just put her on the scale?” she asks Sara, the trainer. The answer is, that doesn’t actually train the behavior voluntarily, and when Grace is bigger and faster, keepers won’t be able to catch her anymore and put her on the scale. Teaching her to do it on her own is easier in the long run. But it is slow in the beginning.

Credit: ZJ Bickel for Dragons, Unicorns, Chimeras, and Clickers

“Watch for a moment.” Sara sat forward and watched Grace, who was just finishing a bit of fruit rind she had gotten earlier. She paused to wash her face, and then to scratch one long ear, and then to rub a paw over the velvet of one small antler. Then she looked at the watching humans, and then around the small pen, and finally she took a single hop toward the scale. Then she stretched her front paws onto the scale, lengthening her whole body. Finally, Grace scooted her rear end forward, paused, and stepped up onto the scale.”

The training took patience because jackalopes are not fast eaters. As Sara stated: “Sometimes you just have to do what the learner prefers…Grace isn’t used to needing to eat in a hurry. She’ll chew her food and then shel’ll sit for a moment, and then she’ll start thinking about finding the next bit of food, which is when she’ll want to earn that next click. It’s all about the learner’s own pace.”

I’m a fitness instructor at a senior center, which is seriously my favorite fitness job I’ve ever had. We make fitness fun, no matter what your level of intensity, no matter your pace, no matter if you go slow or go at full intensity. I absolutely love my Enhance Fitness class, as well as the variety of people I’ve taught to use the gym.

My favorite “student” was Fern*, though. At 76, Fern had lost her life-long soul-mate and had a diagnosis that dementia was coming for her soon. She signed up for my classes because she heard movement and exercise could be good for cognitive function. She came to class three days a week, but at first, she rarely did any of the movements I was demonstrating. It was a challenge for me to come up with modifications for her to perform and attain the same benefits, but I persevered, because I loved Fern’s attitude. She kept showing up, doing her versions of the exercises, and just having fun. After 9 months, she confided in me that on her last doctor visit, the physician was astounded at her healthy turn-around. “All the symptoms of dementia are completely gone” she told me.

Me and Fern, taking it at HER pace!

Here’s the thing. Would pushing Fern to go harder or faster have helped her reach her goals faster? I don’t think so, I think that would have pushed Fern out the door and she wouldn’t have kept coming back. Because I brought the exercises to her level by providing modifications, she learned at her pace, kept coming back, and it changed her life.

We don’t have to go balls to the wall in every workout for it to be effective. We don’t have to learn the routine of our new job in a month. We don’t have to change every behavior we are doing instantaneously to improve our lives. We just have to go at our own pace, doing what we can. What a difference littel baby steps can make!

Big Idea #5- Make Learning (and Fitness) Fun

After a chupacabra training session, Ana and Marian discuss what they’ve learned so far. Marian makes a statement that I completely and whole-heartedly agree with: “The key to it all is making sure the animal learner has a choice to come and learn. Don’t you learn faster when it’s a game than when you are afraid of getting in trouble?”

This is exactly why I created ZooFit after my fitness epiphany, so I could share the JOY of fitness and show how fitness and wellness could be fun, engaging, and EMPOWERING. That’s the key, as Marian in Dragons and Unicorns puts it. We want to WANT to do our healthy habits, not because we’ll get in trouble, but because it’s fun. Because it’s rewarding.

Punishment runs rampant in today’s society. We use force, guilt, blame, and shame to make us do what we “should” do. But how about we do things because they make us feel good? How about we turn our fitness, challenges, and our goals into fun games? Learning little by little, at our own pace, putting trust in the bank each time we reinforce our efforts, and becoming stronger zookeepers (both literally and figuratively as zookeepers of our own body). That’s the ZooFit way– eating clean, living green, and training positive.

Life’s better when you have fun.

Dragons, Unicorns, Chimera, and Clickers

Training is a serious science, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have fun and make it empowering, impactful, and engaging for our students, and ourselves. Let’s take a note from zookeepers, both real and imaginary, and take our learning, our challenges, and our goals to new heights.

Are you ready? Let’s Zoo This!

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