Monday, November 12, 2012

Inside the Mind of a Trainer....

The seasons are changing, and with that so do the animals.  Those changes can be anything from heightened aggression due to the body's natural instinct to breed to completely slowing down for the winter because in their natural habitat  food is scarce in the winter.  Regardless the reasons, it is my job to be knowledgeable in the how and the why of these changes.  That is just one example of the many risks that we, as animal trainers/handlers, take on a day to day basis.  Everyone has different beliefs on those dangers, but I would like to take this time to share mine.

I first saw tigers perform when I was only 10 years old.  At that very moment, I KNEW what I was going to do with my life; not what I "wanted" to do, but what I was GOING to do.  Of course at 10 years old, I did not understand the risks.  In an uneducated mind, I thought that since those people raised those animals, those animals would never hurt them.  Well, that couldn't be further from the truth!!! These animals are designed to whatever cost.  Most of those survival instincts are based on killing living things for food.  Whether its a tiger, a bear, a wolf, or even a bobcat, these animals are extremely dangerous.  It doesn't matter if they see me as their mother or not.  The bottom line is that the human body was not designed to defend itself against the claws of tiger or the bite of a wolf.  What we have on our side is intelligence.  (Well, some of us...) We have the ability to learn and understand these animals inside and out.  That is our main advantage.  I get asked a lot, "What happens if and/or when they turn on you?"  My answer is always the same.  "An animal doesn't "turn" without a reason.  There is always a reason.  A big part of my job is to know these animals better than they know themselves.  I must be able to "see" their thoughts and react accordingly.  Those reactions are mostly preventative to what the animal is about to do or what he/she is thinking about doing."  

I spend hours upon hours observing these animals; watching their every move and learning how each individual animal thinks.  Just like people, they all have their basic instincts, but have very different personalities from one another.  (For example, if anyone has filmed/photographed our two young mtn lion girls, Kali & Khia, you know that they are polar opposites of each other.  They are litter mates, they were raised the exact same way, they live together 24/7, but just have completely different personalities.)  The importance of knowing what step an animal is going to take before they take it is monumental in this field.  Most of the time, I am able to redirect any undesirable thoughts before they manifest into actions.  A simple "no" or "ah ah" goes a long long as they were taught what those words mean.  I am also very well trained and versed in how to deal with negative situations.

The simple fact remains that just because these animals know you, love you, and respect you, NOTHING is guaranteed.  These animals are never tame or domesticated.  No matter what, the "wild" will always be in them.  To me, that simple fact is the most important thing to know and wholeheartedly understand as an animal trainer/handler.  Like any professional in a dangerous field (ie: police officers, firefighters, line men, etc...), I understand the inherent risks that I face everyday and I accept that.  Statistically, however, my job is much safer than most would think.  Here is a list of 2012 deaths to put things into perspective:

  • On-Duty Police Officers: 107
  • On-Duty Firefighters: 67 
  • Dog Attacks: 30
  • Exotic Animal Attacks: 4 (2 of them were from snake bites)
As you can see, the everyday life of an exotic animal trainer/handler is actually "safer" than the everyday life of a policeman or firefighter.  And there are more deaths caused by your domesticated dogs than there are by the many exotics that are handled everyday.  My guess on the reason for that, mainly, is the mutual respect given in the man/wild animal relationship.  When man (or woman) loses respect or even just lacks respect for what these animals are capable of out of complacency or just flat out ignorance, that is when bad things happen.  My hope is that when those things do occur, the backlash is minimal and more of just a wake up call for those who need it!

My mission in this field is to safely provide the best quality of life possible to captive animals.  I feel that, that is best achieved by human interaction and training.  Providing those things stimulates the animals' minds, bodies, and emotions.  Those are things that humans need, and so do animals.  Providing those things actually make my job safer!  That is my "job."  I love my job.  It is hard.  It takes SO MUCH dedication (In the summer, I average about 80-90 hours/WEEK! In the winter, the days are shorter, so I go down to about 60-65 hours/week).  It is physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful.  The animals become more important than myself at times......BUT! the reward outweighs any paycheck or luxuries in the world.  This career isn't for everyone.  You can't do it if you don't absolutely, undoubtedly love it.  It's just not worth it.  And I can proudly say that I LOVE IT!  I am blessed that these animals have allowed me to be a part of their lives and in some cases be their mommy!

I welcome anyone to reach out to me on any of my views/beliefs/philosophies on training/handling these amazing animals!

Thank you for reading!

Bruno & his "Mama Bear"
(Photo provided by Lacy Deist-Schnieder) 
Heather Keepers
Head Trainer

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