Kenny Coogan is an animal trainer and educator for Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. He runs a weekly Sunday column "Critter Companions" for three NY based newspapers which cover all aspects of companion animals such as enrichment, training, showing, product reviews and non profit interviews.Subscribe to his articles on Facebook.
Tell us about yourself Kenny, how did you become interested in animals?
I became interested in animals when I was a really small child. My parents got me a black cat and after a year I got another cat, some hermit crabs, fish and cockatiels and it really expedited the experience when I was in 4th or fifth grade and got three english call ducks. Call ducks are a domestic breed which only weigh one pound when they are fully grown and they are used in England to call other birds. Hunters use them to shoot the other, wild ducks. So usually (hunters) will form like a line with their call ducks in a pond and the females are really loud and vocal and then all these wild ducks start coming, so they use them for "bait".
And those three ducks led to two more ducks, which led to chickens and geese. Every couple of years I would get more and show them at state fairs and county fairs, I became a member of the Western New York Poultry Association so every month we would meet and talk about chickens and ducks and how we would show them and what to look for when breeding.
I grew up in a town called Wheatfield, we had about an acre so we had land. Behind us was a very big field and behind that there was a creek and a park so it was very country-esque. It deffinetly aided my animal track in the zoological field.
When I was around 11 years old I started volunteering at the aquarium up in Niagara, I was one of the youngest volunteers they've ever had, I was a volunteer there until about 16 and was hired about 16. When I started volunteering I started doing the touch tanks and members classes and sleepovers (as the instructor not the participant). I knew I wanted to be an animal trainer and I wanted to do mostly birds. The aquarium only had penguins so I did a lot of stuff with the penguins.
Then I went to college and created my own major because they didn't have any animal related majors at the college. So with the help of two professors I created my own major. The major I created was called "Animal Behavior" so I'm a bachelor laureate of science in Animal Behavior.
A month before graduation I applied for a full-time position as an animal care specialist at Buffalo Zoo in New York and got hired. Three days after I graduated I started working full-time as the head person who took care of the education animals. I trained the animals for summer shows and handled the in-house outreach programs for the zoo. These were animals that people would often have as pets like rabbits, ferrets, chinchillas, english call ducks, lizards, snakes, a blue and gold macaw, senegal parrot, barn owl, great horned owl and a harris hawk.
I now have a job as an animal ambassador trainer for Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo where I host bird of prey shows, host the manatee talk, and present in-house mingles and outreaches.
Do kids come to you after shows seeking career advice? If so what do you tell them?
People often come up after the show (and I tell them) that you have to put your time in and volunteer and get as many vocational experiences as possible through interning with animals or without animals (as long as your in) any animal related field. We've had this conversation and we've given this speech many times to visitors where we all have a different points of view, where my experience differs from my co-worker's.
At-home pet experience is a good step at which to start volunteering at a zoo or aquarium. I haven't found that interning takes precedence over volunteering, as long as you've had the experience. I've had maybe a year of interning for college credit, and I think that's the difference from interning and volunteering is college credit. So interning they hold you accountable for writing a paper [as part of the school credit].
My job now encompasses animal husbandry five out of eight hours a day, two hours of public speaking and maybe an hour of training. Leading up to this point it has been an accumulation of experiences including time at the aquarium doing the touch tanks, sleepovers, and doing the member's program.
What is you philosophy about training animals?
My philosophy for training animals is I want to have the best relationship, the most trusting relationship with my animals, so I'll use the least coercion.
So [when training an animal] just ask yourself this one question "Are you adding something to increase the behavior, or maintain the behavior?" because all the other options are that you're taking away something that it likes, which is not going to be constructive to your relationship. Or, the other alternative, is that you're adding or taking away something it doesn't like. So If you're adding something to increase the behavior that's good, and then if you think "Oh I'm just taking away something that it likes then it's not going to look fondly upon me". And you can add scratches, rub-downs, petting, access to toys. Signs of comfort is when birds rouse, bent down their neck and move closer to you their eyes are not pinning, and what you shouldn't look for is pinning, excessive vocalizing, slicked feathers, real tall body posture, flapping, trying to locamote away from you.
[Kenny gives an example on his training philosophy with chickens trained for the zoo show.]
Most people don't realize that by picking up a chicken you are using coercion because the chicken cannot decide whether or not to be picked up. Our training team realized that and stationed trained all of our chickens so that it would be easier to teach them to step up on our hands so that the chickens would not have to be picked up against their will. We train out chickens the same way we train our very expensive Macaws because it matters what kind of relationship you have with an animal.
What has/have been your most challenging training situation(s)?
The good news about working at a zoological institution is that your co-workers and you all have the same goal, we have the same concept in mind so we can all reinforce what we really want [out of a bird]. We all agree on the training goal and the training plan. My biggest problems don't usually occur with the animal it usually occurs with the caregiver. In New York I did teach 13 adult education classes as an individual consultant: Enrichment on a Shoestring, Intro to Animal Learning and Training, and Parrots as Pets.
I had the biggest problems in Intro to Animal Learning and Training. The owners had preconceived notions about training in general. An older couple, maybe in their 60's, had several Maine Coons. They wanted to show these maine coons and they needed to train them to be exhibit animals. So they would have them in kennels, the judges would take them out of their kennels and prop them up on the table and feel them and measure them and be handled by strangers. Most of their cats were good except for this one cat who was very large, like 40 lbs, and it would hiss and growl every time someone would try to remove the animal from its carrier. This was on a Wednesday night and they said they needed it to be fixed by this coming Saturday for the show. So in situations where the humans are inflexible that's one of the most difficult training situations.
Another one was when doing one of the parrot seminars a woman, when I went to her house, had a blue and gold macaw and she was having behavioral problems such as biting and extensive screaming. It only happened when she was home and not her husband. So her and her husband were not on the same page, they were reinforcing different behaviors which is another example.
So if you want to be a consultant or you just want to fix your pet's undesirable behavior you have to make sure everyone in the household is on the same page.
If you saw someone using aversives on their dog as a training tool what would your reaction be and would you say anything? What would you want that person to know?
My reaction to aversive dog training? I see it a lot and we're talking about choke collars, e collars, any restraint, any harness, electric fences, so I see it a lot. I don't think I would be able to say to every person walking their dog, who is being dragged by their dog or who are dragging their own dog to address all these problems. But I understand why they do it because the tugging the pulling, the shocking, may seem like you are fixing the behavior quicker than using the positive reinforcement method. You don't need to have treats on you, you [already] have your hand or the collar readily available so I understand why people do it but I would also advise that it is very negative to your relationship and that you are taking a lot of trust away from that animal and there are a lot of different ways for them to positively reinforce that animal. And you don't have to have treats you can have pets, scratches, rubs on the ears to reinforce a behavior. And you don't need a clicker, you can just as easily click your tongue [to bridge a behavior].
What do you want pet owners to know about animal behavior and/or training?
I think a problem that pet caregivers have it that they say "I don't want my pet to do this behavior"
and then they don't think further into the problem. But what they need to say "I want my pet to do this behavior instead". So if you don't want your cat to jump on a table, if you don't want your bird to chew on something thats not good enough. You can't just stop that behavior because you haven't taught your pet what [i]to do[/i]. So you need to be able to communicate to that pet what it is that you want it to do. Instead of squirting a cat with water to get off the table you give him treats to sit on the chair next to the table. Find something that they want and add that to the situation to help your pet understand what to do.