Helping people to care for our ocean

IMATA Conference 2018 Report

By: Gabrielle Harris

How lucky am I!!!? 

Yes animal care people are not well paid – but we do have the coolest jobs in the world.  Interacting with some amazing animals, and yes, occasionally getting to travel to amazing places – to interact with other specialists – so we can hone our skills and be the best we can be at – caring for the uShaka Sea World animals.   I feel so grateful.  Not only because of the travel, but for two among many more reasons.  One, our directorship invest in ensuring we are in touch with international advancements, and two, the amazing staff back home who hold the fort and lap up what we learn when we come home. 

Another note of gratitude to technology – WhatsApp – never an opportunity was missed to share what I was learning, while I was learning it – with the necessary audience.  Like when I was seeing the Frankfurt Zoo specialists demonstrating German engineering while cleaning a venomous reptile exhibit – with a blind that is rubbed down the inside of the exhibit.  Quick easy, and over in a flash – no danger to man or beast.  With speed, this was shared with our reptile keepers.  Another example – the excitement of seeing a novel toy for dolphins while watching them play in the Lisbon zoo – quick as a wink, the dolphin team at SAAMBR were sent the video of the enrichment device.  Got to love technology!!!

And yes – absolutely, I do miss the animals when I am away. 

My journey – through Europe, starting in Portugal, where Hayley Tennant (Lead Senior Seal Specialist) and I were sent to the International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association.  At SAAMBR, passionate is the only word to describe how we feel about ethical communication with the animals in our care.  To be surrounded by people who are committed to the same end is really exciting.

IMATA has been operational for decades, and is an institution that has led the way to introduce ethical behaviour management into zoos and aquariums as well as into the domestic animal fields.  There are professionals in the association who are legends, and they are so dedicated to doing right by animals that it is inspirational to say the very least.  Ken Ramirez is one such man, and he led a question and answer evening as a part of the conference that had delegates scrambling to discuss how to do it right by the animals.  Dr Kirstin Anderson is another pioneer.  She presented on research that she has done understanding Sea Bird hearing – vital when we look at noise concerns in our ocean.  What was terribly exciting about the work she  shared is that she has successfully challenged the archaic behaviour science understanding that one needs to do punishment in order to ensure results are valid.  She ensured that all training to establish the auditory capacity of the birds in question was done with ethical behaviour management principles – totally in line with what IMATA stands for.

The meeting is structured in very similar ways to most generic conferences.  Key note addresses, delegate papers and posters, and panel discussions and an association annual general meeting.  The executive president, Mr Billy Hurley addressed the delegates with a history of IMATA.  It is crazy how much we have learned in the last few decades.  Lessons that are so terribly important for conservation.  The more we learn about behaviour management, the more we understand the animals on our planet.  Furthermore, the more we absorb the principles of ethical behaviour management, the better people we become. 

To bear testament to this concept, a dog trainer from Austria was invited to present dog training concepts that she has adopted from marine mammal trainers.  This dog stood, in front of the entire delegation, on a table on a stage, with his leg outstretched – minus any restraint, and allowed a strange vet – one of the delegates – to take a voluntary blood sample.  The dog had been trained to do this.  How many humans man handle their dogs on a daily basis – when it is possible to teach their pets to participate in their care.  More than the simple behaviour management principles, the conference also shared great research advancements.  Simple non-invasive projects that are being conducted in facilities all around the world that are providing us with greater insight into the natural capacity of the animals in our oceans.  These lessons are becoming more and more relevant.  How many of you know about the Vaquita.  It is a little porpoise that is found off the coast of Mexico.  There are only about twelve individuals left.  Our industry is becoming more and more concerned about looking after species that are on the brink of extinction.  The more we learn in our facilities, using appropriate and ethical methods of garnering the information – the better prepared we will be to do what needs doing for the animals on the planet.

I feel really proud to work for SAAMBR.  We walk our talk, sometimes in the face of enormous criticism.  Much of the criticism is from well-meaning individuals who care a great deal.  Information and knowledge makes us better at caring.  So, once again, I acknowledge our leadership for providing us the opportunity to be better at being caring – by sending us to meetings such as IMATA.  Let’s swim our talk together.  Because the world needs doers who are not afraid.