Engaging a wild animal in some simple shaping procedure can give you a startling glimpse of what might be called species temperament—of how not only that individual but that species tends to tackle the challenges in its environment. Teaching training to my class of keepers at the National Zoo, I used a number of different species as demonstration animals. I stood on my side of the fence, using a whistle as conditioned reinforcer, and tossing in food; the animals moved about freely on their side. The polar bears turned out to be immensely persistent and dogged. One bear which accidentally got reinforced while sitting still took to offering “sitting still” as a response; slavering hopefully, eyes glued to the trainer, it could sit still for half an hour or more, hoping for reinforcement. It seems possible that in an animal which stalks seals on ice floes for a living, this kind of tenacity and patience has important survival value.
Species temperament shows up in many, many species in a shaping session. When I inadvertently failed to reinforce a hyena, instead of getting mad or quitting, it turned on the charm, sitting down in front of me, grinning and chuckling like a fur-covered Johnny Carson. In shaping a wolf to go around a bush in its yard, I made the same mistake, failing to reinforce it when I should have; the wolf looked over its shoulder, made eye contact with a long, thoughtful stare, then ran on, right around the bush, earning all the kibble I had in my pocket; it had sized up the situation, perhaps deciding that I was still in the game since I was still watching, and it had taken a chance and guessed at what would work.
Sometimes the animals understand reinforcement perfectly. Melanie Bond, in charge of the National Zoo’s great apes, had started reinforcing Ham, the chimpanzee, for various behaviors. One morning he was accumulating his food rather than eating it, with the intention, Melanie supposed, of eating outdoors. When Ham saw that at last Melanie was going over to open the door and let him outside, he knew what to do: He handed her a stalk of celery."
I’m gonna marry Sufjan Stevens if Hayden doesn’t want to.