Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD*
The following information is based on my lifetime of research and experience and is not the opinion of the zoo where I am a docent.
Zookeepers know how to manage temperamental gregarious mammals. Their strategies can work on your playground, your dinner table, and your meeting room. Our lives have more in common with zoos than you might imagine because all mammals have the same basic brain chemicals managed by the same core brain structures. Here are some ideas for using zookeepers’ best practices in daily life.
- Don’t reward bad behavior. (Or else you’ll get more of it.)
When you hear a mammal shriek, you want to rush over and help. Zookeepers know that you might make it worse if you do. They monitor a situation but refrain from intervening in ways that a social animal might perceive as rewarding.
You can probably think of examples in your life. My favorite example comes from Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched, a book about the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College. The journalist-author spent a year at the school to learn its methods. She had the idea of using them on her husband, who left dirty clothes on the floor all the time. Instead of bugging him about it like she used to, she tried the animal management approach: she praised him when he put his laundry in the basket and just ignored it otherwise. It worked!
- Introductions take time. (Don’t expect instant acceptance.)
We often want others to accept new things quickly and we get frustrated when they don’t. Zookeepers know that new things can get a bad reaction, so they plan ahead to build acceptance gradually. If you want to introduce a friend to something new, don’t just open their cage and let the new thing in. They will feel attacked. Instead, put the new thing where they can smell it and see it at a distance. They may get curious and start approaching it themselves.
For example, when I wanted to switch my daughter to a new school, I took her to the school’s playground a few times before mentioning it. She got to like the place. Now she’s an adult starting a new job, and her employer did the same thing – the Human Resource staff planned slow, methodical introductions to her new coworkers and work rules.
- Enrichment always. (The mind needs stimulation.)
The brain evolved to seek food constantly. When food is just handed to you, your natural seeking skills are not stimulated and you may feel out of sorts. Zookeepers create opportunities for a brain to use its capacities. They change the enrichment all the time because it stops being enriching when it’s too familiar.
When I ask my husband if he wants to go away for the weekend, he is about as excited as an elephant who has to walk an extra 100 yards to get his food. But once we’re actually on a trip, he’s as excited as a baboon licking peanut butter off newspaper strips. When people don’t enrich their lives, they can end up standing in front of the refrigerator without knowing why they’re there. Or in front of a screen full of angry birds or celebrity mating drama. Everyone can enrich their life with goals and variety.
Zookeepers know that animals are motivated by food, but relying on food for enrichment has well-known drawbacks. So they create alternative forms of enrichment from things like old phone books, Christmas trees and children’s toys. When I see animals eagerly exploring these items, I can’t help suspecting that they’re looking for food. But I’ve learned that they benefit from the new sights, sounds and smells anyway. It’s a reminder that our core brain structures keep returning to survival basics, so we have to keep enriching them again.
- Good habits replace bad habits.(The brain runs on habit.)
Habits are real physical pathways in the brain. The only way to stop an old habit is to repeat a new behavior until the brain builds a new physical pathway. When an animal has a bad habit, zookeepers often help them by building a new habit that distracts from the old one. I got to participate in a goat training once, and was thrilled to see the goat’s sudden learning of a new behavior. When the goat got to the top of a wobbly teeter-totter, it froze in fear, but it really wanted the treat on the other side. You could see how scared it was to take the step that made the teeter-totter flop over. But it took a small, cautious step and then another, and soon it enjoyed the reward and returned for another go. After a few tries, it zoomed across with great confidence. It’s harder to train away self-protective habits, of course, but this demonstration showed the power of new learning.
I freeze like a scared goat when I look at the mess on my desk and in my closets. I want them fixed, but the path leading there seems wobbly. I conditioned myself to work on my mess in tiny steps, and I give myself a reward after each step until the job is manageable. I plan rewards that don’t involve food. I have done this so often that it has become a habit. Now when I look at a mess in my life, I start tackling it in little steps, with many planned rewards along the way.
Putting it all together
I wish I had known about zookeeper methods when I was a teacher. I used to be frustrated by the many students who were “winging it” – expecting to pass my course without doing the reading. Today I would handle it like a zookeeper.
- I would not reward students with passing grades if they don’t do the work.
- I would introduce new expectations gradually instead of just announcing them.
- I would design assignments so they appeal to the urge to explore.
- I would break challenges down to small chunks and repeat them until they are mastered.
This is easier said than done. It’s human to focus on misbehavior and inadvertently teach others that misbehaving is the way to get noticed. It’s easy to please people in the moment instead of focusing on real needs. But if zookeepers did that, a zoo could not function. How could I make sure I use sound animal management principles despite the difficulty? I can use these principles on myself! I can reward myself only when I actually stick to my new strategy. I can give myself time to adapt to the new strategy. I can find a way to make the new way feel rewarding, and I can break it down to small steps that I can repeat until they feel natural. In short, I can respect my inner mammal instead of whipping it like a circus animal.
Managing yourself is hard. That’s why we’re often tempted to manage others. You may be thinking of someone you’d like to retrain right now. You may wish you could re-train millions of people, especially people in power. But it’s important to remember that zookeepers accept animals as they are instead of expecting them to be different. We can accept our fellow man, even as we aspire to run things like a zookeeper.
Sometimes you can’t fix a problem and the best you can do is avoid easy answers. I learned this from a zookeeper in France. I was watching the bonobos at Le Vallée des Singes (the Valley of Monkeys), and was surprised to see huge hairless patches on them. I looked for a keeper to find out more. “They pull their own hair out” he told me. I jumped to the conclusion that they had dark history of trauma and confinement, and I asked him where they were from. He said they had mostly lived in European zoos where they were well treated, but the young ones see their mothers do it and start. Then it becomes a habit. “They’ll stop eventually,” he said. I would have liked a fast, easy answer, but he taught me to accept that things are more complicated.
- Loretta Graziano Breuning is a Docent at the Oakland Zoo, Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay, and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute.