21 thoughts on “Open Thread

  1. So, I was thinking about the gorilla who was killed in the zoo to save the little boy…

    I know that zoos often train the animals to submit to medical procedures (once saw a photo of a hyena offering his jugular vein for blood draw and a rhino who stands still for a blood draw up against the bars so the vet can access a vein) using positive reinforcement.

    Why don’t they train the animals with an “emergency recall”? Just a signal to say, “Hey, everyone get into the indoor enclosure, there’s SUPER SPECIAL TREATS happening there RIGHT NOW!”

    Now, my dogs don’t always come when called (especially if they think it means that I’m going to force them indoors for something boring like dinner when we should really still be chasing frisbees, don’t you think?), but we have an emergency recall that I can use to get them to come to me NOW when I need it. I don’t use it often, but when I do, they COME. Because it doesn’t mean boring things like dinner, it means SOMETHING AWESOME is about to happen and we’d better get over there before someone else gets it first.

    I can’t help but think that if the zoo had an emergency recall for the gorillas, Harambe would have dropped that kid like a hot potato and could have been safely contained while someone went in to retrieve the kid. Especially since Harambe was born and raised at the zoo, lots of time for conditioning to an emergency recall…


    1. TY for bringing this up. I am unable to type as much as I’d like to about this topic but suffice to say I agree with your sentiments. I did hear that zoo staff were able to lure the other gorillas in the exhibit into a secure area but IDK if the male simply ignored them or was not in a location where he could hear or what. I do believe the shrieking of the crowd, while understandable, contributed to the animal’s stress. I can’t imagine being either the zoo staff or the parents of that child in that moment and having to make a quick decision. Tragic.


      1. It is just tragic all around. I have to wonder how emotionally scarred that kid is going to be – he WANTED to play with the gorillas and now he has this onus on him…

        Not to mention his parents are being told that they’re horrible people, they should have shot the kid, etc.

        I’m sure that the zoo is reviewing EVERYTHING related to the death of Harambe and working to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. And the staff who raised him from a baby and cared for him daily are undoubtedly heartbroken over this.

        I’m hoping that in the end, some good comes from it, but right now, it looks like nothing but pain, anger, and grief.


      2. I can’t help but compare this to the incident in the late 80s at the Jersey Wildlife Trust, when a little boy fell over the wall into the gorilla enclosure:

        Again, the dominant male became agitated as the child began to cry & at the noise of the crowd. But the response differed, and no-one, human or gorilla, died.


      3. Someone else was having the same discussion on a FB group.

        Now, first off, I have no problem with the addition of a high value recall training regimen, it’d be good mental exercise for both staff and zoo animals. Regardless of what I think of the success chances.

        But (despite the insistence of trainability) there’s a HUGE difference between training an animal to tolerate a (not really very painful) needle stick for a treat, and teaching an animal to over-ride a millennia built genetic drive to PROTECT, like a male silverback has.

        MAYBE, if it was physically possible for a zookeeper to sound the recall the instant someone fell into the pen, BEFORE any of the animals went to investigate, then maybe such a recall would work.

        But that’d take a miracle. Reality: your average gorilla or lion can cross the average display run in a very short period of time if they’re so inclined. Reality: after someone falls into the run you have to find a zookeeper, explain what happened, have them call into the back, have someone hit the button to trigger the recall…..I’ll bet 4 or even 5 minutes of wasted time that there really isn’t any way around.

        Once the animal has investigated and found that bleeding screaming human? Once the crowd reacts, hyping the animal on? Your chance of recalling that animal is non-existent. Gorilla’s, or lions, aren’t domesticated. They have zero “please the human” drive beyond the “if I behave I get food” level. And although food OUGHT to be a high drive for such an animal, zoo animals are very well fed, meaning that hunger doesn’t over-ride any other instinct.

        Plus lets look at what exactly would be involved in training. Just training in a recall won’t do it, they proved that with this incident, no matter how high value the reward. You’d have to acclimatize the animals to the actual worst case scenario. Tossing random objects into the enclosure, even with accompanying crowd noise isn’t going to do it, though it might slow down the animal’s reaction in the future if he thinks its just going to be another piece of trash. But a screaming bleeding human doesn’t look, smell, or sound anything like a piece of trash. You’d have to put an actual human at risk during the training. I can tell you now THATS not happening. But even if it did……

        I have a highly primitive, highly prey driven, dog. When I say “highly” I mean take your average working terrier prey drive and combine it with a sighthound’s prey drive, and add in a barely domesticated temperament. Due to incredible amounts of work on the part of me and my husband we have gotten him to be safe with our cats. But just OUR cats. He knows the difference between our cats and every other cat. Every other cat is NOT safe with him. And it was months and months of constant daily work to get him to the point of just being able to have him not chase our cats on sight. And it takes daily work to keep up that safeness. And this is a dog with a good food drive and who’s tightly bonded to us.

        Even if you could find a human who’d be willing to play dummy for the training of these zoo animals (and be willing to do it daily for months if not years on end) it is VERY likely that all you’d do was acclimatize the animals to that one human doing those things. EVERY OTHER HUMAN would still trigger the instinctive response.

        Now is it possible, that with the right animal, in the right situation, that the animals response to the screaming bleeding human might not be aggressive? Sure. But THATS in individual response that you can’t count on.


      4. Ruth, got to disagree. Wild animals do respond to operant conditioning. And if your emergency recall comes with something super high value (doesn’t have to be food – depends on the animal), then yes, it will work. Remember, this is a gorilla raised in the zoo from birth, not one taken from the wild a few years ago…

        And I very much doubt that hyenas have any drive to please humans at all – not to mention presenting your THROAT and standing still while someone sticks a needle in it is counter all instinct in the animal. (There are humans who have go give blood via jugular stick and THEY have to psych themselves up for it, even with a full understanding of why it’s being done and that it’s not going to kill them.) But consistency and patience pay off. They hyenas do that because they know there’s a payoff worth it to them. Not because they care about making humans happy.

        And there’s absolutely no reason to put a human in the enclosure to train. That’s training to a specific situation when you want this recall to work ALWAYS for ANYTHING. It sounds like they had a regular recall for the gorillas – a “come here” cue – but that will not work under all circumstances. Emergency recall is for emergency situations. That’s why it’s special. That’s why you don’t use it when you just want an animal to come to you for cookies or petting or whatever. It’s conditioning so the behavior is automatic.

        Of course there are things that the zoo could have done differently in this situation. I’m very certain that they’re evaluating those. But the question of “did the zoo make the right choice?” in shooting Harambe. Well, the child survived, so I would have to say that they made A right choice. Perhaps not the choices that could have been made with time and hindsight, but a right choice nonetheless.


      5. Sure, but the hyenas have been taught that THAT SPECIFIC thing has rewards worth over riding their instincts. And I can guarantee that the handlers try to make everything as consistant as possible.

        Its physically impossible to sound a recall before the animals find the screaming bloody human unless you’re seriously lucky. So you have to train that the reward is better than dealing with the random screaming bloody human that just invaded their pen.


      6. Ruth, again, this isn’t regular recall, it’s emergency recall. Emergency recall is just for situations where bad things are about to or are already happening.

        You do not have to train to the specific situation, you condition a response. That way if you have some idiot throwing fireworks into the gorilla enclosure, or if a plane falls out of the sky, or a suicidal human climbs in and tries to hug a gorilla, you can still get the gorillas to a place of safety and containment.

        Emergency recall is not your “come here” recall, it’s your “Oh shit” recall. Which is why you have to work on conditioning and paying off big time (in a way that REALLY rewards the individual) EVERY SINGLE TIME you use it.


      7. I am aware of what an emergency recall is. If it will make you happy to believe that you can train past those wild instincts without having the specific conditions on hand I guess I will stop trying to burst your bubble. Personally I’d love to be proved wrong. But until we actually start breeding for domestication of these animals (and don’t fool yourself, no matter how many generations in captivity, they aren’t domesticated) the chances of it happening on a large scale its unlikely.


    1. Interesting, my old cat girl is now refusing the BB wet food she’s eaten well for a long time. I will be buying a different brand today. I learned the hard way about not listening to cats and dogs and food.


  2. Regarding the incident at the zoo, it seems to me that the child was at fault. He intentionally broke away from his parents and chose to go into a restricted area. I hope that when the police are finished with their investigation, they charge him with trespassing, and I hope he reflects on what he has done and will always feel guilty about it. Children need to be held accountable for their actions and not be allowed to get away with everything just because they are young.


    1. Anne, you do know this child was 3 or 4 years old, right? Yes, it would be nice if he would have listened better, but saying he should be charged with a crime is insane. He’s not capable of understanding the complex ramifications/consequences of his actions, and for you to think he is (or should be) is scary. That kind of punitive judgement on a toddler makes me wonder about your temperment. And hoping he feels guilty for the rest of his life is just nasty as hell.


      1. Agree, KateH. A four year old child has very poor impulse control and lacks the cognitive ability to reason ahead about potential consequences.

        This kid LIKED the gorillas and he was within inches of one violently killed to save his life. I can only hope that he gets psychological care to prevent being messed up by this the rest of his days.

        It was an accident. A tragic, horrible accident. Instead of looking to blame, we should be looking to prevent it from happening again.


  3. Kate H., I was pretty responsible when I was four and I never did anything I wasn’t supposed to. To answer your question, I have a tendency to think that other people are likely to think the way I do, or did, but I guess not all humans think the same way at that age. If you don’t think he intended to harm the gorillas, then I’ll go with your judgment. It just bothers me the way young children are not held responsible for their actions, and I wonder if that might be one reason why they are so violent and likely to hurt animals.



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