Monday, May 26, 2008

PPG Aquarium Visit Part III - Q&A with Bob Snowden

The session Kyle and I observed and participated in with Bob Snowden answered many of our questions about the details of his shark feeding and training techniques. But we still had quite a few questions left, which Bob patiently answered for us after we'd made his way through all the visitors and back to his office.

Unlike our behind the scenes tour, the trip through the main halls of the aquarium was a bit of a challenge. It was a beautiful weekend day, so the aquarium was teeming with curious onlookers. He said the only time it gets even busier is during a sudden shower on a nice day - causing throngs of zoo visitors who would be otherwise looking at the outdoor displays to seek shelter indoors at the aquarium! He said they love the attention, since it helps them fulfill their primary mission of educating the public about the wonders of the aquatic world.

What follows is my recollection of the question and answer session Kyle and I had with Bob. These aren't our exact words, but I tried to capture the spirit of our questions, and Bob's answers.

Dean: Bob, how did you get started with shark training? What made you think it might be possible?

Bob: At my last job, at Moody Gardens Aquarium in Houston, I trained a sea turtle with some of the same techniques I've used on Sushi and Nori. Plus, my wife Jenni, who now works at the PPG Aquarium also, has a background training birds and small mammals. So I suspected it might be possible to train sharks.

Dean: How long did it take for the Zebra sharks Sushi and Nori learn the behaviors you've taught them?

Bob: It took a couple months for them to learn to touch the target, and a few more months to teach them to allow me to handle and physically interact with them.

Dean: Was one of them a quicker learner than the other?

Bob: Yes. It surprised me that Nori was somewhat quicker to learn to touch the target than Sushi, who at the time was the more dominant of the two. I'm not sure if it is because of the training, but interestingly, Nori has 'come out of her shell', and become more dominant since I started training them.

Dean: Do you worry about forgetting? If you don't train them for a few days, will Sushi and Nori forget what they've learned?

Bob: First they only get trained (and fed) three times per week anyway, and I don't always do a complete training session at every feeding. Sometimes when if I'm too busy or traveling, the sharks will only get the physical interaction training once per week. And they don't seem to forget it.

Dean: I've heard talk in the animal training literature about the benefits of various reinforcement schedules. Do you reward your sharks every time they perform a desired behavior, like touching the target, or do you vary the reward schedule? For example, do you make them touch the target several times before getting the reward?

Bob: In a pretty densely populated tank like the 27-foot one Sushi and Nori live it, it isn't easy to make sure that all the fish get fed, and that the fish get the right food. My focus is on making sure all the animals get the food they need. So I tend to reward them with food every time they touch the target. It can be a bit of a challenge sometimes.

Dean: Do you think they enjoy the training, and the interaction?

I'm not sure I'd use the word 'enjoy', at least in the way people normally use it. It is hard to tell if they've got that much going on 'upstairs'. My gut tells me that they mostly want the food reward they've learned always comes afterwards. But who knows, they may also find the interaction itself rewarding, at least in some primitive sense.

Dean: You use homemade plastic targets on the end of a pole as the cue, and long tongs to deliver the food reward. Have you thought about, or do you know about, other tools that could be useful for your training efforts?

Bob: Not too much for training. But there is a company called
Animal Capture Equipment, Inc. who I worked with when at Moody that sell some helpful feeding tools and even targets for training. None though that are as integrated as the feeding wand in the Fish School kit.

Dean: Are you training your sharks on any new tricks?

Bob: Not right now with Sushi and Nori. My focus has been on expanding the training to other fish in the big tank, including the Bonnethead sharks, Black Tip sharks, and the big Grouper (named Eugene). I'm also just starting to train another smaller Zebra shark. She was in the 'hands on' tank with the rays. She was starting to get aggressive with the rays, so we took her out of the 'hands on' tank and moved her to quarantine. I'm hoping that training with improve her attitude, and make her less aggressive so we can return her to the tank with the rays.

Dean: That was one thing I wanted to ask you about - aggression. Do you think that training can help with aggression, and if so, why?

Bob: I'm hopeful that it can. From what I've seen with the other sharks I've trained, it seems to change their attitude and behavior. I think it gives them something to do. In the wild, they spend a lot of time hunting, looking for food. If they aren't given something else to focus on in the tank, hunting is what they'll naturally tend to do, resulting in aggression towards other fish.

Dean: What has been the reaction of other professional aquarists to your shark training success?

Bob: At first they were skeptical. They didn't see the point. They said, 'station feeding is enough. We don't need this other stuff.' But when they saw how much less stressful routine care like weigh-ins and blood draws were for the sharks, and for me, after they had been trained to tolerate physical interaction, they said 'hey, that could be really helpful.' They are still a bit skeptical about calling what I'm doing 'beneficial enrichment' though. The prevailing belief in the industry is that enrichment involves putting fish in a environment that simulates their natural habitat with rockwork and coral, and keeping them in a tank with a variety of compatible species. Sometimes I get ribbed by professionals from other aquariums for my training efforts. But they are starting to come around.

Dean: Are there aquarists at other public aquariums doing similar work training sharks and fish?

Bob: Yes. I was surprised to learn that some colleagues at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago independently started a program to train their sharks at about the same time I did. They've taught them to come to a specific part of the tank and touch a symbol for food reward. [Here is a PDF briefly describing the shark training program at the Shedd Aquarium].

Dean: It sounds like you and the aquarists at Shedd have found training to be a helpful tool in behavioral management of the animals in your care. Do you know of other practical applications of fish training? Have you heard about the recent project by researcher at Woods Hole to train fish in the open ocean to return to a station to feed based on a sound cue? The idea is to train fish to return to a specific location when cued with sound. They will be fed at this spot, which will encourage them to continue returning. When they get big enough, one day you can call them back, and easily net them for harvest. They are doing it with sea bass. The idea is to turn 'fish farms' which are cruel and bad for the environment into 'fish ranches', where the fish are allowed to roam free.

Bob: I hadn't heard of it, but it sounds worthwhile. It would be better for the fish, the ocean and the fishing company. The key will be to see what fraction of the fish continue returning. I'm not sure just how good a cue sound will be. Fish can hear, but not exactly the way we do. They are better with lower frequencies. Higher frequencies don't carry very well through the water.

Dean: What do you think of the home aquarium hobby and industry?

Bob: Overall I think it is a good thing. There are a lot of people who are really into fish keeping as a hobby. They take it seriously and get a lot of enjoyment out of it. There are unfortunate aspects about the home aquarium industry though, and to some extent it is a result of the retailers. For example, they shouldn't encourage customers to buy fish that grow too big for most home aquariums. For example, you shouldn't buy a Pacu, which can grow up to 60 lbs, unless you are prepared to buy a several hundred gallon tank, and spend $40+ per month on food. That's why fellow PPG aquarist Rich Terrell has put together a short guide (PDF) about responsible pet fish selection called FISHH (Fishs ill-suited for Home hobbyists).

Dean: Do you have fish at home yourself?

Bob: Yes, I have a saltwater tank at home with corals, clownfish, tangs, shrimp and a yellow tail damsel. In fact, like many professional aquarist, I first got into it as a hobby, and only later became my career. But I've never thought about applying training techniques to home aquarium fish. I can definitely see it could work though.

Dean: What did you think when you saw the videos of what my goldfish Comet has learned to do?

Bob: I thought it was pretty amazing. A couple of us were sitting here watching the videos and saying 'how cool is that!'

Kyle and I gave Bob a R2 Fish School kit in appreciation for his hospitality, and encouraged him to use it to train his fish at home. We also talk to Bob and fellow aquarist Katy Wozniak about the possibility of future collaboration. Bob told us:

"I believe the sky is the limit when it comes to this stuff. I believe that when we challenge the minds and bodies of the animals under our care it is a win-win scenario. The animals use more of their senses similar to what they would do in the wild, stress is reduced, and care, on our part, is easier and safer. I believe that will lead to greater longevity in captivity and an overall better life for the animals."

It was wonderful to talk with someone with such similar beliefs and experiences to ours when it comes to fish training. It was inspirational for both me and Kyle to see what Bob has been able to do with the sharks in his care. Observing his techniques, and his success has got our creative juices flowing, and we're thinking about whole new directions to take with Fish School!

Thanks Bob!


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