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Cue the Lion, Please

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Editors' note: We met Chris Davis at ClickerExpo Newport. Chris came to the conference looking for innovative ideas in working with his staff at A to Z Animal Management Consulting, www.zooconsulting.com, a company that provides training and consulting services worldwide. We spoke to Chris recently about his work and the success of his training company.

How did your career in animal training begin?

Chris and Dolphins

Chris Davis with friends at
Via Delphi in the Mayan Riviera.

While I have always been around animals, my animal career started with dolphins at a stranding network while studying marine biology in college. I then went to Texas A&M at Galveston to participate in a photo-identification internship. From there, I went to Disney's Living Seas and began an internship in cognition research with the six dolphins that were housed in their oceanarium. It was there that I began to realize that while I enjoyed the research side of working with animals, my true passion was for hands-on animal management.

Subsequently, my career began to shift from research to the actual training of animals for research projects. After Living Seas, I had the opportunity to work with terrestrial animals at Disney's Animal Kingdom. I then went on to work for the US Navy's Marine Mammal Program, which was the ultimate animal training challenge. From medical and research training to training dolphins to work in the open ocean with no restraints, this opportunity helped me develop and sharpen the animal aspect of my training skills. After the Navy program, I began working at a dolphin interaction facility in Hawaii where I had to learn to balance my animal training skills with entertaining the guests—which provided new challenges! As my people skills began to catch up with my training skills, I was moved into a management role of an animal facility located in French Polynesia. I was managing a foreign animal care staff made up of two distinct cultures, Tahitian and French, both very different from Americans. This proved to be steepest and most exciting learning curve of my career.

When and how did you first encounter clicker training, and how were you motivated to adopt this method for your own work?

As I had dogs for most of my childhood, I began informally training at a young age. However, I can't say that I always used positive reinforcement during that time, as I certainly used a fair share of newspapers and verbal corrections.

Early in my career, while I was working with a very young dolphin at a Texas stranding center, I began to see one-trial learning from inadvertent training. It was amazing to see the effects of operant conditioning and how fast the animals learned, although the learned behavior was rarely intentional and not always desirable. It was also interesting to see that while the people were engaging in an informal "play" session (at least from the humans' perspective), the learning process was every bit as strong as if it were accomplished in a very structured "training session."

After seeing the results of positive reinforcement, I was sold on how powerful a tool it is for managing animals. While working with Disney, I learned how to effectively use event markers, as we were very reliant upon the whistle for dolphins. Once the skill had been built for using this training tool, it was easy to transfer that to using clickers with exotic terrestrial animals as I gained training and research experience at Disney's Animal Kingdom. During this time, I also remember studying Steve Martin's bird training videos, which helped me learn to generalize the training techniques to animals other than dolphins.

What were the origins of your work for zoos? How did you build this into your own business?

As most of my career involved marine mammals, I had a wonderful opportunity to broaden my experience into terrestrial animals when Disney was in the first stages of building a new zoo, the Animal Kingdom. Since the actual park was a couple of years from being ready, the animals were brought into an off-site holding center and Disney's plan placed a very heavy emphasis on cooperative behavioral management. So this provided a perfect opportunity to begin training naïve animals.

After working with terrestrial animals for a while, my career again took me back to marine mammals. While I was serving as the director of animal management for a large dolphin interaction company, I began to informally consult on behavioral issues relating to numerous types of animals. Through my involvement with the International Marine Animal Trainers' Association, I met a wonderful individual who introduced me to the career of full-time consulting. She had told me that the only problem she had with it, due to having a family, was that there was so much travel involved. That was exactly what I wanted: the opportunity to work with animals, train people, and to travel.

Chris and Seal Pup

Chris poses with a cape fur seal at
Bayworld Oceanarium and Snake Park
in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

So after a few months of considering the opportunity, writing and revising a business plan that seemed to make sense, and carefully reviewing the scary proposition of self-employment, I decided to go for it. My decision was both helped and hindered by the fact that while I had broad training experience, I had spent the past few years in a very specialized area of training: swim-with-the-dolphin programs. Due to strong connections in this area and the fact that there were no other consultants at that time who had any experience in swim-with-the-dolphin programs, I felt that initially targeting this market was a logical and sound choice. I also recognized that the company would probably not have long-term success by catering to only swim-with-the-dolphin programs.

So while our initial target market was swim-with-the-dolphin programs, I established a four-stage marketing plan. I started by contacting all of the people involved in dolphin interactions that I had met during the past several years. This included people I knew through my association with the International Marine Animal Trainers' Association as well as friends of friends. The next stage was to send brochures and letters of introduction to every aquarium and oceanarium in Europe, Mexico, and the Caribbean that housed dolphins or sea lions. Then, as I wanted to at least get my company name in front of zoo directors, I sent a cover letter that introduced the company and our services to the management of each AZA-accredited institution. As an additional element of the marketing plan, I also kept close watch on all job postings regarding animals. If it seemed the post could be filled in a consulting capacity, then I would contact the institution and introduce the company and our services. Next to my immediate acquaintances, this proved to indirectly be the most productive method, as it served to create a company name that was recognizable by many facility managers.

Another important element of the company's success has been to continually make sure that the business plan is flexible. The initial business plan involved numerous short-term contracts with several companies throughout each year. While this seemed to make sense on paper, real-world operation showed that the company was initially reliant upon two or three long-term contracts (three-month duration) with large companies. These contracts allowed time for our company's reputation to become established and now, almost three years later, we still maintain a handful of long-term clients, but we are continually picking up shorter term contracts and adding to our client list, which helps the company grow now that word-of-mouth is our best marketing tool. I have also found that by maintaining a very positive relationship with some of the companies that I'm in direct competition with, I've gained their respect and have even benefited from them recommending me to some of their own clients as a potential resource for specialized training scenarios.

I spent the first couple of weeks of the company's life establishing systems for administration tasks. As the administration side of the business does not directly contribute to the income of the company, I knew that once the company was running, the less time needed for administration work, the more time and resources I would have for directly contributing to the income and growth of the company. This has proven to be a huge help in decreasing my workload as the company has multiplied in size over the past three years. The company has grown from a staff of one, myself, to having two full-time consultants, one part-time consultant, two consulting veterinarians, several contractors including architects and engineers, and a handful of specialized trainers that come on board as new projects require.

As the needs of zoos and aquariums are very broad and tend to cover the spectrum of professions, I am continually on the lookout for individuals that bring new skills to our team. These people usually come from clients and from the relationships that I develop through various professional organizations. We have tried to maximize our presence in many professional organizations to benefit from the networking that these organizations provide.

Currently, what type of services and consultancy you offer?

Chris, Morgan, and cubs

Chris with his wife Morgan and 5-month-old
lion cubs at a wildlife reserve in South Africa.

Our core business is based on consulting on issues that directly relate to animal care, public display, and developing revenue-generating animal programs. This includes behavioral management, medical care, staff training through workshops and seminars, public presentation/show development, and advising non-animal-related management on animal-related issues. The behavioral management aspect of our consulting ranges from training exotic animals for safe guest interactions to extinguishing undesirable behaviors such as pacing and problems arising from social incompatibility.

As our company has grown, we have begun to take on larger projects that include designing all aspects of zoos and aquariums, market feasibility studies for new animal parks, and providing international public relations support.

We are continually refining our services and really try to be as flexible as we can in catering to current clients as well as potential clients. When we do have requests that we have no experience in dealing with, we either try to find individuals that have the needed skills and experience or we pass the contact on to one of the other consulting companies that specializes in that particular area.

Do you find that your clients are interested in your all-positive training process, or simply the outcome (producing the desired behavior)?

As we deal with both individuals that are directly related to the care of the animals as well as individuals who are corporate managers and have no animal experience background, the expectations that each of these groups has of us is very different. Ultimately, we are tasked with finding a way to satisfy the expectations of both groups of people as our success is dependent upon us developing and achieving objectives that are attractive to both.

The animal-related staff do want to understand the process, but only after they have seen us achieve clear results from using the methods that we "preach." Managers that we interact with typically are not concerned with the actual process, other than that they want to know our opinion regarding the overall efficiency of their company's current training and management system. However, we have found that involving management in our workshops that relate to animal training and animal management helps to foster a productive relationship between management and the animal-care staff that lasts long after we leave the facility.

Are there any particular challenges that stand out for you?

Each new project presents its own challenges. There are typically a lot of factors that we don't know about a facility until we get on site and meet the staff and animals. Probably our biggest challenge is accurately determining the best strategy for getting the staff to implement our recommendations even after our team leaves the facility. As we work with companies in several different countries, we are also faced with the need to alter our approach based upon culturally relevant factors.

What's it like to travel the world, working with a wide variety of animals? Would you say you've created your dream job?

I certainly believe that I have a dream job. It mixes everything I love: working with a wide variety of animals, training and meeting people from many different cultures, and traveling to just about every corner of the world. The favorite part of my job is also the least favorite part. During the past three years of work, I have met some of the nicest people and made some of my closest friends. The downside comes when a project is completed as I have to part with these people and I typically don't know when I'll see them again.

Chris and Morgan with their dog Chloe

Chris and Morgan with their dog Chloe,
at their former home in French Polynesia.

Your thoughts on ClickerExpo, and how that experience is relevant to your work?

ClickerExpo Newport was a wonderful experience. There were two main reasons why I initially wanted to attend ClickerExpo. First, I wanted to add new ideas to my toolbox for skill-building exercises that I could implement with the animal-care staffs of my clients. Through my relationship with marine mammal veterinarians who also own small animal clinics, I have had the opportunity to work through many behavioral problems in dogs; especially aggression issues. What I have seen in myself is that working with dogs has proven to be a great opportunity to keep my skills sharp and really focus on specific areas to make my training more efficient: timing, variable reinforcement, selective reinforcement, correct approximations, timing of approximations, etc.

Due to many factors, as exotic animal trainers we are often faced with situations where we just don't have a lot of time to accomplish our training goals. This creates a situation where our training needs to be extremely efficient as we just don't have time for the trainer's learning curve to catch up to the needs of the project. So by using dogs to build the skills of my clients, the trainer's learning curve happens on the dog, who is typically much more forgiving than some of the exotic animals. Using dogs to train trainers also helps break the barrier that exists between simply knowing training theory and actually applying it in everyday training practice.

The second reason for attending ClickerExpo was to watch the behavior of professional dog trainers in assessing situations. I believe that most professional dog trainers are very good at quickly gauging situations and then quickly showing initial results with the animals that clients bring to them. In many instances, the success of the trainer depends upon the owner of the dog "buying into" their training recommendations. As consultants, my team is often faced with the same need for quickly assessing behavioral situations, developing an effective and easy-to-follow strategy for addressing the problem, and then quickly showing initial results to put clients on the right path. So I am continually looking for hints and tips on how other people accomplish this so that I can maximize my efficiency in this area.

ClickerExpo certainly fulfilled these objectives and also provided other valuable information and experiences that will be useful tools in the consulting world. I am already looking forward to attending next year's ClickerExpos.

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