equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT Conference 2016: Steve Aibel on “Learning to Bond”

beluga and calfLearning to Bond:  The successful reintroduction of a beluga whale calf

Steve started by talking a little bit about what animals need to thrive. He had a nice diagram (shaped like a triangle) with physical needs as the foundation, social needs in the middle and mental needs on top.   He said that animals that are not physically or socially comfortable are not ready to train.  A successful breeding program is not possible without meeting the physical and social needs of the animals.  What is not always recognized is that it also depends upon good training.  In this presentation,  Steve talked about all the ways that good training helped to successfully reunite a beluga whale and her calf.

At Sea World they have been successfully breeding belugas for long enough that they have had opportunities to observe both normal and abnormal mothering behavior. There are three main behaviors that should happen in the hours immediately after birth.  These are contact and retrievals, mother following, and nursing. In animals where there is a healthy mother-calf bond,  the trainers would observe all of these happening.  If these behaviors did not happen, then the trainers would have to intervene.

In the year that this story takes place, they had two pregnant beluga whales that were due to give birth around the same time. Crissy was an experienced mother who had successfully raised calves in the past.  Luna had given birth once before, but she had ignored her calf at birth and the trainers had to intervene and raise it instead. The trainers are able to hand raise baby whales and other animals, but they have found that these babies often have a hard time fitting into the social structure of their species and they are never quite “normal.”  Babies are learning from the moment they are born and they really need to be learning how to fit in with their own kind.

Because Luna had ignored her last calf, the team decided they needed to have a post-parturition plan for what to do if Luna ignored her new calf. The plan included closely monitoring Luna and the calf to see if the three behaviors were happening, and if not, intervening to provide the calf with his nutritional and social needs.

They were hoping that Crissy would calve first and provide an example for Luna, but instead Luna had her baby (Samson) first. Samson’s birth was uneventful, but in the first hours after birth Luna did not try initiate any contact and retrievals. Samson just swam around the pool by himself.   The first priority was getting Samson to eat.   While mothers’s milk is ideal, milking a beluga is slow work, so Samson was fed a combination of Luna’s milk and formula.   In anticipation of possibly needed to do this, the trainers had already done some training so that Luna would allow herself to be milked.

Samson was bottle fed to meet his physical needs. But what about his social needs? They introduced him to another beluga whale (Martha) who was an experienced mother. She showed an interest in him, encouraged him to follow her, retrieved him when he wandered off, and even allowed him to “nurse.”  It was never clear if he was getting anything from nursing, but he did continue to try, so perhaps he was getting something.  Martha had not calved recently but animals can sometimes produce milk under the right set of circumstances.

At this point things were going pretty well. Samson was growing and he was bonding with Martha and showing normal calf behavior. The next question was whether or not he could be re-introduced to Luna. The hope was that now that Samson had learned how to interact with his surrogate mother, perhaps he would initiate that kind of relationship with Luna.   The question was what would Luna do?

Luckily, they had a “secret weapon” which was Crissy who was due to calve any day. They put both females in the same tank and let Luna observe Crissy give birth to and bond with her baby.   They kept Luna in there for two days following the birth and then they re-introduced her to Samson.  This time the pair did engage in normal mother-calf behavior.   All three of the major behaviors (contact and retrieval, mother following, and nursing) were observed.  I thought it was interesting that Martha was ok with this and allowed Samson to go off with Luna.

Steve finished his talk by asking the question “Why do we care about this?” Yes, it’s a nice story, but is that all?  No, the reason it’s worth sharing is that it shows that good training can make a big difference in how successful we are with our animals, not just for performance, but in all aspects of their lives. Or to put it simply, “everything matters.”

It mattered that they had trained Luna to be milked. It mattered that they had training and trust in Martha, so they were comfortable introducing her as a surrogate mom. It mattered that they had training and trust in Luna, so that they could allow Luna to observe Crissy deliver and mother her calf. It mattered that they had training and trust in Crissy so they were comfortable allowing her to deliver in the same tank as Luna. If they had not spent time training Crissy, Martha, and Luna, it would have been much harder to make decisions about how to help Samson.   The training time created relationships with these animals so that they had good choices about how to help Luna and Samson.  You never know when something unexpected is going to happen, but if you have spent time training and building a relationship with your animal, you will have built a solid foundation, and that will make a successful outcome much more likely.

Thank you to Steve Aibel for permission to share my notes.  Thank you to everyone at ORCA who worked hard to put on this conference.  You can visit the Art and Science of Animal Training facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/The-Art-and-Science-of-Animal-Training-1460845514215463/?fref=ts.

The dates for next year’s conference have just been released. It will be held on February 25-26, 2017.  See you there!

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2 replies

  1. I thought equineclickertraining was about clicker training for horses. All I have seen here is other animals.


    • Hi Lynn,

      Most of the year I write about working with horses, but I do attend two training conferences every year and share my notes from them. The conferences are about animal training and clicker training, and a lot of the material can be applied to horses, but when I share my notes, I try to report on the content of the talk, not what I am going to do with it. If you want to read about entries that are more horse specific, you can look in the archives for anything not labeled as the ORCA conference, or visit my website http://www.equineclickertraining.com or visit my facebook page, equine clicker training – Katie Bartlett.


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