Chicagoans: Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal collections and animal training, Shedd Aquarium

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BRENNA HERNANDEZ/SHEDD AQUARIUM
  • Brenna Hernandez/Shedd Aquarium

If you understand the laws of gravity, you know that if you hold an object in the air and let go of it, it will drop to the ground. That is a law that always works. In the same way, behavior is a science, and it always functions in a specific way. Most people don't know that, and that's why we have pets that misbehave, it's why there are problems in the workplace, it's why there's divorce.

Whenever you see a dog doing a cute behavior, people say, "He's so smart!" Well, he might be, but that's not what makes an animal trainable. Training happens because of good use of operant conditioning. I can train an earthworm to do behaviors as quickly and easily as I can a Harvard graduate, though I'll run out of things I can train an earthworm to do pretty quickly.

Training is about making learning fun. We take a blood sample from our beluga whales' tails once a month. So we ask them to give us their tail ten times a day. We tickle it, we massage it, we give them a toy. And one day we put a needle in and they feel a little uncomfortable, but then later that afternoon, they still give us their tail.

Growing up, I was petrified to go to the dentist because I didn't go very often, and when I did it was always painful. If my parents had taken me every day, and the dentist always said, "Hey, Ken, here's 20 bucks, see you tomorrow," and then one day a month later, I got my teeth cleaned, I would have learned that once in a while it may be uncomfortable, but most of the time, it's fun.

People don't understand how their behavior impacts their pets. Let's say you don't want your dog to jump on people. But as soon as the dog jumps on someone, you give it lots of attention, so it learns, "If I jump, I get attention." I see parents do it all the time. Their kids are screaming, and the parents give them candy to shut them up. They've just taught their kids to scream.

I am a strong proponent of not teaching trainers a cue that means "no." When we have the ability to say "no," we use it too much. What animals and people need to know is: what is it you want them to do?

I'm responsible for overseeing the care of the 32,000 animals we have here at Shedd. The only way for me to get some good quality time with the animals is by putting in a six-day week. There's a California sea lion here named Tyler. Once I was walking through an area where he was, and this trainer he was working with had a pouch full of fish. I had nothing. He left the person who had all the tasty fish behind, and came over and sat in front of me. I imagine because it's because I've spent so much time with him. I wish I could ask him.

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