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Creative Gorillas?

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The "creative" game, an application of operant conditioning, was first developed with dolphins at Sea Life Park in Hawaii. This procedure for teaching animals to invent new behaviors was reported in a study funded by the Office of Naval Research. (See "The creative porpoise: Training for novel behavior," Karen Pryor, Richard Haig, and Joseph O'Reilly, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 1969, 12:653-661.)

Clicker training enables dog owners to repeat this experiment with their own pets. In her book Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs, Karen Pryor calls the game "86 Things to do with a Box" and outlines how to click a dog for coming up with new ways to play with a box.

Now trainers in at least two facilities in the US are playing the 'creative' game with gorillas. At the Franklin Park Zoo outside of Boston a keeper recently commented "It's so much fun to watch our male gorilla playing the game. The keeper says "Show me something new," and he starts to move his arms and then you can see on his face he's thinking "Oh no, I did that one already."

At Disney's Animal Kingdom keeper-trainer Rachel Cantrell reported on an internet discussion list that they began playing the game with an adult male gorilla to keep him from pestering the other gorillas during training sessions. The gorilla responded with enthusiasm.

We asked what the gorilla had thought up. Rachel wrote, "He has come up with several behaviors such as: tapping his head with his hands, shaking his arms, standing up and shaking his whole body, standing and bouncing, smacking his lips, rolling his lower lip and shaking his head so that his lips shake. Another behavior that he shows us is something we call 'the sneak.' He pulls his forearm up close to his body and moves very close to the mesh as if he wants us to sneak him the reinforcer. When he does this we reinforce him by throwing the treat in the crook of his arm."


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