Journalist Amy Sutherland delves into everyday life at the world’s premier school for exotic animal trainers.
“Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World’s Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers” by Amy Sutherland. (Viking)
By Abby Frucht
I once saw a circus act in which an elephant sat in what looked like a restaurant, ordering tea. The giant animal perched on a stool at a small round table, alternately beckoning the waiter and tapping the checkered tablecloth impatiently with the tip of her trunk. She crossed her legs, jiggling one ankle as would a lady in a dress, and toyed now and then with the delicate teapot, turning it gently this way and that as if admiring the painted flowers twining up the spout. Did she pick up the porcelain cup with her trunk, bring it to her mouth, tip her head in contemplation of the flavor of tea? I think she did, for in my mind’s eye I can still see her sipping, and I remember the shouts of hilarity that rose out of the audience as the elephant rummaged in her change purse for coins, the tip deliberately small in response to the waiter’s clumsy attendance.
I remember feeling sad. Perhaps the elephant believed that we found her ridiculous, that we were laughing at her weight, or at the shape of her ears, or at the bristle of hair that could be seen poking out from under her hat. Perhaps she felt superior to us and was merely being tolerant of our stupidity, or worse yet, perhaps she was crying inside, wishing we would all go the way of yesterday’s audience so that she could lumber back into the rear of the tent and behave like an ordinary elephant again, chewing straw and taking showers.
I don’t remember wondering where or by whom she was trained, but when I thought about HOW she was trained, I was sadder still, for I imagined the trainer punishing her if she failed to lift the teacup as directed, or if she dropped it on the ground. I imagined the elephant’s dread of these training sessions, the way she must have dragged her feet on her way to that caf?able, bracing herself against the whole painful and humiliating enterprise.
But now I know better, for I have read Amy Sutherland’s “Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched,” the author’s account of a fairly tumultuous year at the Exotic Animal Training and Management program at California’s Moorepark Community College. EATM, pronounced “Eat ‘M,” which is considered the premier school and teaching zoo for animal handlers, zoo keepers, and the legion of entertainment industry folk who make their living working with non-human actors in movies and aquaria, was opened in 1974 by an egotistical “alpha male” named Bill Brisby, aka Briz. Once you get past Sutherland’s descriptions of Briz’s self-indulgently sexist treatment of the school’s mainly female student body (perhaps because of the nurturing aspect of animal training, most trainers are women) you might begin to appreciate the good he brought to a practice that had hitherto consisted of whip-wielding bullies threatening scared animals into compliance. If the idea of a socialized baboon still troubles you, the idea might become less troubling when you learn that one of the objects of training is to persuade the baboon to participate in his or her medical care and well-being.
At EATM, students train animals not only to perform tricks but to cooperate with ear exams and temperature-takings, to extend their arms for blood pressure cuffs or injections and their paws for toenail clippings, and to allow themselves to be leashed for a walk around the grounds with the second-year students assigned to their care. What’s more, instead of punishing animals for doing wrong, Briz advanced the principle of rewarding animals for doing right, adhering to B.F. Skinner’s model of Operant Conditioning, which is based on the notion that an animal’s behavior is shaped by its consequences. Thus the cooperative baboon is allowed to cuddle her favorite stuffed animal, the trained dolphin is given an opportunity to commune with himself in a mirror, and the hyena who allows himself to be petted is awarded the treat of a chicken neck.
Lest we forget that humans are animals too, Sutherland, whose recent New York Times Modern Love column concerns itself with human to human interaction in the form of herself and her husband, balances her look at the training of baboons, lemurs, big cats, dolphins, and turkey vultures with a sympathetic gaze at EATM’s students, whose love lives, pocket books, and even figures are sacrificed to the school’s avowed boot-camp atmosphere as well as to its habit of providing feasts of junk food to sleep-deprived rookies. I wish that Sutherland had refrained from repeatedly painting charm-school-like portraits of students. Among numerous others we are introduced to “a small, understated blonde,” “a petite, freckled second year,” “a second year with almond-shaped eyes and hair down to her waist,” and “a small first year with an upturned nose and a pretty, starlet way about her.”
Still, Sutherland’s portraits of many of these women follow them out of their doubts and vulnerabilities — the failed marriage, the failed test, the rat who wouldn’t run his maze — into a sense of courage and accomplishment. Physical injury, infection, even death, are all risks faced by animal trainers, who, whether they work with emus or mandrills, must find a way to be attentive to their animals without being trampled or mauled. One young woman wears a necklace of angry red hives from allowing her rat to play on her shoulders. One of the teachers is sat on and nearly suffocated by a camel, and the mountain lion, Kissu, attacks his trainer. Why would the big cat attack the person who raised him from cubhood, the person who once snuggled with him on the couch? “Even though an animal is an animal you’ve worked with a long time, they can still turn on you” without needing an excuse, explains a professional trainer. As all zoo keepers know, “Anything with a mouth bites,” but every bite brings the handler’s ego down a notch or two, teaching her not to be careless or irresponsible.
Sutherland, a Boston and Maine-based journalist with an eclectic bent (her first book was the award-winning “Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America”) chose a jam-packed year for her work at EATM. Her time there coincided with performer Roy Horn’s attack by Montecore the tiger, with a fast spreading wild fire that precipitated the emergency evacuation of students and animals, with the unexplained death of one of EATM’s young students, and with the persistent appearance of animal rights activists, whose objections to the captivity and training of animals give rise to ever more interesting debates, now that the animals’ natural environments are so under siege. From the look of things, all years at EATM see tragedy and hilarity amid business as usual, and readers can expect to be moved, entertained, and edified. Who would have guessed that a grown tiger would be afraid of a baby stroller, that the reason a cheetah runs so fast is that it has no collar bone, or that an elephant poops 15 wheelbarrowsful in a day? Add to this the politics, philosophy, ethics, and science of animal training, and you will never regard an elephant drinking a cup of tea in the same way again.