Who do you call if you have a misbehaving rhino, lovesick cheetah, belligerent
pig or a dog that just won't stop barking? An animal behaviorist, that's who!
Animal behaviorists study the behavior of animals in nature and in captivity.
The official name for this field is "ethology." Applied ethology takes
that knowledge of animals and applies it to practical settings: "Zoo, lab
animals, companion animals, wherever people are keeping animals," says Ruth
Newbury. She is an animal behaviorist at the University of Washington near
Seattle. Her job is to apply her knowledge of animals to better their conditions
In a zoo, an animal behaviorist records animal behavior over an extended
time period. Then the data is used to compare the animals' behavior to what
they expect the species to be like in the wild. If the species is well-adjusted
to captivity, it should perform a wide range of behaviors. If not, an animal
behaviorist can then help modify the exhibit to see if that helps.
In other cases, usually with domestic animals, behaviorists try to determine
the cause of undesirable behavior. Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin in Fort
Collins, Colorado, studies cattle and other livestock to determine what makes
them resist moving through cattle chutes.
"They're afraid of noise, metal strips on the floor and seeing a person
moving fast and jerky up ahead of them," says Grandin. If the things that
frighten cattle are removed or put out of sight behind high barriers, then
cattle will walk quite calmly into any chute.
A behaviorist working with your pet -- technically called a companion animal
-- may use several conditioning techniques to modify behavior. In these cases,
they'll often obtain a written history of the case from a pet owner, diagnose
the problem and design a structured plan for the owner in order to help the
owner and pet.
For instance, to quiet a barking dog, animal behaviorist Bob DeFranco recommends
using negative reinforcement.
"I use my voice, a soda can filled with pennies, a squirt of water, a leash
check, to name a few." If the dog doesn't respond to "Quiet," a squirt of
water or the loud sound of the can at the dogs' feet should be enough to silence
the animal. When the dog is quiet, praise it: think Pavlov's dog in reverse!
Behaviorists may also work with veterinarians in prescribing medication
when necessary. Some animal behaviorists work for universities and research
centers. Some work with zoos, and others work as independent consultants.
Animal behaviorists who work through universities and research centers
typically work Monday through Friday from 9 to 5. Independent consultants
are often called in when there's an animal behavior emergency.
Animals behaviorists need to be patient and have fluid, quiet movements.
Animals don't like loud, quick movements, especially animals that are already
showing sign of stress!
Grandin says her success working with animals has come from being able
to think like them. At the very least, you should have good observation skills.