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101 Things to Do with a Polar Bear

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I recently posted some reports from the zoo world about using the 'creative' game-training an animal to think up its own behaviors-with a gorilla. 101 things to do with a Gorilla. People sometimes think of the training we do as something artificial. Why would you want to demean the animal by making it play games? Never mind if the animal loves the game! Furthermore, to some people the '101 things to do with a Box' game seems particularly confusing and problematic when applied to dogs. How does the dog 'know' what to do if you don't tell it? Why would you want it to just guess?

On July 8, my grandson Nathaniel's sixth birthday, he commandeered his Mom, his Grandma (me), his older brothers, and his friend Taylor, a six-year-old girl who lives on his street, for a trip to the zoo. Roger Williams Zoo, in Providence, Rhode Island, is a small but very pretty and well-thought-out zoo. We liked the giraffes and the elephants and the Thorny Devil (an Indonesian insect) but the hit of the day was indubitably the baby female polar bear, (2 ½ years old, 300 pounds) out playing in her pool while her 600 pound mother snoozed nearby.

When we got there the baby bear was in the water, up against the underwater viewing wall of her pool, bewitching a bunch of children. Nattie and Taylor sat on the floor, noses and hands on the glass. The bear turned herself upside down in the water and put her nose against Nattie's nose. Then she put her nose against Taylor's hand. Three times. Taylor put both hands flat on the glass over her head. The bear turned itself rightside up and put her own big paws flat against Taylor's hands, on the other side of the glass. This bear was playing 101 things to do with an audience!

Every so often, perhaps three times a minute, the bear had to go up and get a breath. Like a click and treat, that provided a sort of break in the action, and very often when the bear dove down again she did something new. Like what? Well,. She could turn and wiggle in any direction. She could see the children very well, and followed them, poked at them, and made faces at them (scary-bear faces). She tried blowing different amounts of bubbles. She made noises. Once she hung from the pool ledge by her back feet for a while, her own back against the glass, looking over her shoulder.

Gale, Nat's mother, crouched down to the glass next to the children and the bear rushed her, darting at her sufficiently aggressively to make her jump back involuntarily. "That's a great behavior, Get Mom!" I said. The bear liked it too, because it went on a riff of play attack. It rushed at a wadded up shirt in a child's lap. Other kids immediately produced wadded up garments and the bear darted at those (parents began to worry about whether the glass was really thick enough.) One boy unfolded a zoo map and spread it on the glass. Wham, the bear feigned an attack on that, this time with an audible underwater growl.

I think my favorite behavior of all was one I observed later, from the surface. The bear was seeing how long she could stay upside down under water-while holding her left hind foot in the air.

All in all, from my hasty notes made that night, this big baby bear came up with around sixty behaviors in about ten minutes, about half of which involved getting the kids doing something too.

And it made me think. We often say that with clicker training we see the best side of the animal. We like the 101 Things game because it brings out the animal's mental capacities. And here was a wild animal, captive-born but not trained (this zoo does not do that, I'm told), using these innate capacities on her own. Part of being a successful polar bear must include developing initiative, imagination, flexibility of mind and body-and a certain sense of humor. That's what this baby was working on.

I think the 'game' -and the communicative aspect of our clicker work-is far from artificial. It exemplifies Mother Nature-at her best. So much of the behavioral world divides what animals do into 'natural' behavior, such as dominance, fear and aggression, and behavior modification or training. In truth, I think it's a continuum, with a lot of overlap. This is going to be a constant theme in all of the three ClickerExpos: let's bring these diverging views together, let us talk about the whole animal, brain included-it's the separation that's artificial. Come and join us.

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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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