February 22, 2010 at 11:38 am 22 comments

I TIVO’d the documentary “Mine” last night and hope to find time to watch it tonight.

In a bit of late night insomnia last week I caught parts of “Into the Lion’s Den,” a documentary on TV zoologist and big cat trainer Dave Salmoni’s work habituating a pride of wild lions to his presence. While Salmoni calls what he does “positive reinforcement training” he’s actually using the kind of very subtle approach / retreat – pressure / release (or negative reinforcement) skills that wild animal trainers have used since at least the time of Heini Hediger. (Hediger’s books are classics on how animals use and understand personal space and highly recommended for anyone who’s interested in how to use approach / retreat to work with animals.)

In Salmoni’s experience, every sound and movement a cat makes tells him how it’s going to behave. If he responds appropriately, the cat will respond appropriately, too. He will be successful when the lions consistently allow him to remain on foot in their close proximity, regarding him as neither a threat nor a potential meal. Salmoni knows the risks are enormous, but he is more concerned with the future of wild animals in our world.

I’m not sure how habituating wild lions to the presence of humans is going to save them – since habituated wild animals are the most likely to cause problems. A bit of googling shows that Salmoni is a controversial guy. He uses his looks and connections to make hyped up for TV documentaries instead of doing serious research. “Into the Lion’s Den” struck me as the wild animal trainer’s version of a parlor trick – but if you catch it, watch it to see how incredibly subtle the use of negative reinforcement can be.

Via MPR: [cheers!] Missing Mexican gray wolf found and returned to wildlife center:

The wolf was spotted by a police officer in New Brighton, and officials from the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake were able to tranquilize and net the animal at about 9:30 a.m. Thursday, said Joy Fusco, administrator of the Wildlife Science Center.

Via HumaneWatch:

Feld Entertainment has filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against HSUS.

The central claim of the lawsuit (see page 13 of the PDF) is:

[D]efendants have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate multiple schemes to permanently ban Asian elephants in circuses, to defraud FEI ofmoney and property and/or to unjustly enrich themselves, with the ultimate objective of banning Asian elephants in all forms of entertainment and captivity. To carry out these schemes, defendants conspired to conduct and conducted the Enterprise through a pattern of, among other things, bribery and illegal gratuity payments (in violation of both state and federal law), obstruction of justice, mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. (emphasis addad by HumaneWatch)

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. I expect this case to drag on for a long time…

And – for a bit of light entertainment check out this Life Magazine photo essay on the Dogs of WWII:

Entry filed under: behavior science, dogs, wildlife. Tags: , .

Distorted Perspective Comparing Veterinary and Human Health Care

22 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mongo  |  February 22, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    We skip “The Lions Den” type programming.
    We think the only reason these bozos are getting airtime is producers are secretly hoping they will be the next “Grizzly Man” (who video’d himself) and they want to have rights to all footage. Including the final 20 minutes of screaming.
    It also furthers the mythology that only certain VERY SPECIAL humans (usually paid professionals claiming God given insight) could ever dare to guess what an animal’s next move is gonna be.

    YAY for the wolf!

    off to look at the photo essay…….

  • 2. YesBiscuit!  |  February 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Great news on the wolf!
    That lawsuit makes HSUS sound like the mob. heh.

  • 3. retrieverman  |  February 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Salmoni is okay.

    But he was involved with a scam of a documentary with John Varty. I’m not saying he masterminded it, but Varty got involved with a Chinese tiger conservancy, which had lots of money to put up. Varty said that he would rewild the Chinese tigers in Africa, and that would provide some sort genetic reserve for the tigers that are native to China.

    Varty met Salmoni for information at the Bowmanville Zoo in Ontario. Varty was in search of Bengal cross tiger cubs, which are not the subspecies native to China. Some of these tigers included cats that carry the white gene. White tigers cannot survive in the wild.

    Varty decided that Salmoni knew more about tigers than he did, so he hired Salmoni to be his tiger rangler.

    However, he used the tiger conservancy’s money to front this project, and a documentary was made of it. Salmoni became a star.

    But the tigers weren’t “rewilded.” They were trained to “hunt” penned up antelope and ostriches that were run up against the fences for the tigers to catch. After the filming was over, Varty put them in his tiger park, which has some big cages. He’s trying to breed a white tiger.

    The Chinese tiger conservancy was suing Varty the last I read, but I think Discovery settled it for him.

    But these tigers are not wild at all. They just got good at killing penned up antelope and ostriches!

  • 4. retrieverman  |  February 22, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    As for Hediger, I am very careful about reading any ethology or animal behavior books that come from a German speaking country before 1970.

  • 5. Rob McMillin  |  February 22, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    In the Life photo essay, the caption for the third photo reads, “A German shepherd poses with RAF flyers…” The “Alsatian” locution got its start in World War I, as I recall, but did it last through the Second World War? That is, is this a contemporaneous caption, or is it a bit of retrofitting?

  • 6. Rob McMillin  |  February 22, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Retrieverman —

    As for Hediger, I am very careful about reading any ethology or animal behavior books that come from a German speaking country before 1970.


  • 7. Rob McMillin  |  February 22, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Also — look at all familiar?

  • 8. H. Houlahan  |  February 22, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Rob — modern caption. The “Alsatian” official conceit in the UK continued until at least the 1970’s. Not sure when their KC officially dropped it, but the population still uses the term.

    Fortunately, “Victory Pup” in this country (for dachshunds) went the way of Freedom Fries pretty quickly.

    I submit that the UK version of the GSD was varied sufficiently from the working type or the show-dog “International” type by the 80’s that there was a good argument for calling them Alsatians and treating them as a separate breed. They were more different from the Continental dogs than English shepherds are from Aussies, and had been effectively genetically isolated for longer due to the UKC quarantine.

    Now that the quarantine is gone, the British show dogs are (I am told) the weird banana-backed international type, rather than the weird short-legged English/Commonwealth type. Improvement?

    Never buy a car made by the speaker of a Romance language. Never buy a German shepherd bred and selected in an English-speaking country. Pretty good rules of thumb.

  • 9. Rob McMillin  |  February 22, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Never buy a car made by the speaker of a Romance language.

    Fix It Again, Tony. Ironic because I actually knew a Fiat owner who was, in fact, named Tony. True story: the ragtop actually came unbuttoned at highway speeds once.

    Never buy a German shepherd bred and selected in an English-speaking country.

    Where did you get Lilly and Mel?

  • 10. retrieverman  |  February 22, 2010 at 3:13 pm


    The reason why I am skeptical of a lot German literature on animal behavior before 1970 is that most of that literature was tainted with the culture in which it was developed. Konrad Lorenz’s many flawed theories have ways of popping up there.

    Even someone I like, such as Eibl-Eibesfeldt,gets things wrong, like assuming that European badgers are solitary and that’s why they can’t be trained.

    Actually, European badgers are quite social. They can’t be trained very well for the same reason that wolves can’t be.
    They are unable to learn from humans what the rules are.

    Although Lorenz recanted on a lot of his work. I think his work on aggression ultimately set what became sociobiology back for several decades.

    BTW, if you want to see someone use negative reinforcement really well check out the Horse Whisperer, Monty Roberts. He appllies flight pressure to horses and then rewards them by releasing that pressure.

    Most retrievers are trained using negative reinforcement. Well, at least at one part of their training. We call it a force fetch or force breaking (sometimes a conditioned retrieve). The dogs are given pressure in the form of a toe or ear pinch, which they can release by biting on a dowl. They can be taught to hold and release on the dowel. Then a dummy is used. Then a bird. Then dog is sent out at a distance. It works.

    If that’s what’s in Hediger’s work, the I’d be interested in reading it, but if it’s full of crap about wolfish dogs and jackalish dogs, I really don’t have much time for it.

  • 11. retrieverman  |  February 22, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    As a German American, I take that word Alsatian as an insult. (I’ve actually found one of my ancestors was from Alsace-Lorraine and was a German speaker.)

    Alsace-Lorraine is now in France. Its people may speak German, but they like being French (there are lots of polls on this).

    The GSD is mostly a derived from a dog that comes from Thuringia, which used to be part of the Communist German Democratic Repubic. That means that it is no way Alsatian.

    Of course, we like to think our bob-tailed herders are from Australia– calling them Australian shepherds.

    And we call the white German spitz in this country an American Eskimo dog.

  • 12. H. Houlahan  |  February 22, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Rob, Lilly and Mel were both 1-2 generations removed from the Heimat.

    Both of Lilly’s parents were imported. Mel’s sire was imported and fresh off the boat when she was conceived, her dam was first-generation.

    And of course, both were bred according to the German system, and both from working stock. Lilly’s sire was a police service dog, and her dam was bored out of her mind. Mel’s parents were schutzhund competitors.

    In the working Germans shepherd world, there’s a big difference between a dog that happens to be born on American soil, and an American-bred dog. (Ambred)

  • 13. Mongo  |  February 22, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Interesting, retrieverman……. I ordered Col. Konrad Most’s 1910 book recently.
    other more pressing issues arised- but what I read was impressive.
    All the old books are worth a read-I agree it sometimes give genesis for the more widely accepted but flawed idealogy.
    Karen Pryor’s “Lands Before the Wind” is a great modern example- not many P+ folks ever heard of it and really think the captured sea mammals were not aggressive to humans. (Training an incompatable alternate behavior does not equal quelling aggression thru positive reinforcment.)
    The chapter on the short lived attempt to train sea otters is hilarious.

    Now I have to go peruse the habits of European badgers- LOL
    gee thanks
    I love my coatimundi housepet- much of what is commonly accepted as “coati social behavior” is based on flawed observations in the wild and only now are new studies questioning the old observations.

  • 14. SmartDogs  |  February 22, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Hediger was a zoologist and wild animal trainer – not a dog man. If he wrote at all about dogs, it would be purely as a side note. From Wikipedia (’cause I’m too lazy to write a bio myself):

    …noted for work in proxemics in animal behavior and is known as the “father of zoo biology”. Hediger described a number of standard interaction distances used in one form or another between animals. Two of these are flight distance and critical distance, used when animals of different species meet, whereas others are personal distance and social distance, observed during interactions between members of the same species.[1] Hediger’s biological social distance theories were used as a basis for Edward Hall’s 1966 anthropological social distance theories. Hediger was formerly the director of Zürich Zoo.

    Hall’s books are excellent too. He was an American anthropologist who expanded on Hediger’s work and applied it to humans, hopefully that’s OK.

  • 15. SmartDogs  |  February 22, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Chuckie Ray in a previous life!

  • 16. retrieverman  |  February 22, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Flight distance stuff is very interesting.

    I’ll have to check it out.

  • 17. SmartDogs  |  February 22, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Hediger goes into detail on how big cat trainers use flight distance, personal distance etc. to tame and train the animals they work with. That’s why Salmoni immediately made me think of him because that’s exactly what he was doing with lions in the wild — approaching quietly until the lions demonstrated that they were uncomfortable with his approach (i.e. apply pressure/aversive) then stop and let the lions calm down (remove pressure/stimulus). With repeated reps, he closed the distance where they would accept his presence calmly from something like 200 yards to ten feet in a month or two.

  • 18. Rob McMillin  |  February 22, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Alsace-Lorraine is now in France. Its people may speak German, but they like being French (there are lots of polls on this).

    Not if France has anything to say about it:

    The French government pursued, in line with its traditional language policy, a campaign to suppress the use of German. Both the German language as well as the local dialects Alsatian, Moselle Franconian, Lorraine Franconian and Luxembourgish Franconian were for a time banned from public life (street and city names, official administration, the educational system, etc). Largely due to this policy, Alsace-Lorraine is today very French in language and culture. Few young people speak one of the Franconian dialects today or Alsatian, though the closely-related Alemannisch survives on the opposite bank of the Rhine, in Baden, and especially in Switzerland. However, while French is the major language of the region, the Alsatian dialect of French is heavily influenced by German in phonology and vocabulary.

    In recent times, official and private initiatives have been trying to reverse this process to preserve the area’s unique Franco-German cultural heritage. For instance, French high schools students can apply to attend a specific class entitled “Langue régionale d’alsace et des pays mosellans” (Regional language of Alsace and Moselle countries)[15]. However, French officials chose in 2008 to suppress fundings for bilingual electoral propaganda, which had been existing since 1919[16]. France is one of four nations (together with Andorra, Monaco, and Turkey) that has never signed the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities[17].

  • 19. SmartDogs  |  February 22, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    My several greats grandfather came here from Alsace-Lorraine area in the mid-1700’s.

    Alsace-Lorraine is an area, not a specific place – kind of like the upper Midwest is “Minnesota-Wisconsin-Upper Michigan”. While there was overlap in both populations, Alsace was generally more German and Lorraine was was predominantly French. Though at different times both were parts of each country (and different countries) and referred to by different names.

  • 20. Rob McMillin  |  February 22, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    I must say that, having spent time in Switzerland, listening to those guys speak Deutsch is like having a baseball bat applied to your head, if what you’re used to is the Hanoverian accent they learn you in school. I was over there in ’93 or ’94, and my college classes were over a decade old by that point. I like to think of myself as able to sift through a lot of different accents, but the way they swallow their vowels there makes me wonder if there isn’t a lot of those south German and Frankish influences living on in the Confoederatio Helvetica.

  • 21. H. Houlahan  |  February 23, 2010 at 10:22 am

    It occurs to me that flight distance and critical distance might have been named and footnoted and such by Hediger, but he sure didn’t discover them.

    Every one of our hunter ancestors prior to modern firearms had these concepts inscribed in their hindbrains. Those that did not failed to become anyone’s ancestor.

  • 22. SmartDogs  |  February 23, 2010 at 10:27 am

    That’s why Wikipedia and I say he ‘described’ them. He’s fairly modern (died in ’92) so I’ll bet there were others that wrote about it long before him too.

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