Marine Mammal Training Methods

    Many captivity supporters make the claim that cetaceans are never forced to perform. After all, they are large, powerful animals that could tear us to shreds. How exactly would a human being control these beasts?

   You do not need to physically force an animal to do anything, all you need is a little bit of manipulation and technique. If you want to make a career in altering and controlling animal behavior, a psychology degree is preferred.

   State of the art facilities like Seaworld, Miami Seaquarium, Shedd Aquarium and the like, use a training method called positive reinforcement.         

Positive Reinforcement:  the adding of an appetitive stimulus to increase a certain behavior or response.  

    Most of us understand how this works on a basic level. For instance: a father tells his daughter that he will give her candy if she cleans her room. If the daughter cleans the room, then the candy is the positive reinforcer. The girl cleans her room because the reinforcer is appetitive.


 1. An instinctive physical desire, especially one for food or drink.

2. A strong wish or urge.

    In the case of cetaceans, the positive reinforcer is most often dead fish. (at times it is a rub down or attention) Whatever the reinforcer, it must be appetitive. This is what encourages the dolphins or whales to follow the hand signals. If the cetaceans did not have an instinctive desire  for the fish due to a want or a need for the food, they would not act accordingly and the training would not work.

    Every behavior the cetacean executes during a show is an appetitive behavior. The success of Seaworld’s training  hinges on the reinforcer (fish) and the appetitive responses (ie, they need the fish or attention so they obey the hand signals to satisfy their needs.) This is considered a positive method of behavior altering, and most people believe that it is more effective than punishment. Animal training is controlling an animal’s behavior. Conditioning and manipulating them to get the behavior you (and audiences) want to see. This is how trainers force the whales to perform. Not physically but mentally through a basic psychological approach.

    Seaworld and similar facilities DO feed their whales and dolphins actual meals of dead fish. They do not starve them, they do not punish them. The trick is to feed them, without satisfying them entirely. To deprive them ever so slightly. In this way, the fish becomes a positive reinforcer during training sessions and shows. It is a method of appetitive stimulus, the art of modifying animal behavior via the delicate balance of positive reinforcers and deprivation.

    Evidence of this is in the lucrative shows, the exceptional obedience the animals have to the trainers, and the fact that after every favorable behavior, the trainers can be seen throwing handfuls of fish rewards into the animal’s open mouths. If the cetaceans had full stomachs, why would they perform for food? For something that they had no desire for?

When the animal hears a whistle blow (also known as a "bridge"), it knows to return to the stage to recieve it's dead fish reward.

    One important thing to realize is that most dolphinariums are not state of the art. Many of them use cruel or even abusive training methods, rather than Seaworld’s and other U.S. based aquarium’s relatively “humane” approach.

    Some may argue that if it is okay to use positive reinforcement on children (as in the father and daughter analogy I used above,) why is it not okay to use positive reinforcement on these animals?

    One argument is that the reinforcer for children is usually not basic necessities like food or love, as it is for the whales and dolphins, but instead the odd reward ie, candy.

    Also, the children are usually not reinforced to do something consistantly for the profit of the parents. Whales and dolphins are manipulated every day to perform for the financial benefit of a multi billion dollar industry.

   The training methods of Seaworld and similar parks are inhumane in their own right and require food deprivation.

“Positive reinforcement can also be called rewards. Rewards take on many forms. For animals, one of the most common rewards is food. Indeed, many behaviors animals do in the wild are for getting food. If certain behaviors allow an animal to get food successfully, the animal will repeat these behaviors the next time it is hungry.”

        This is how the animals at Seaworld are forced to perform.


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