Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Five Most Memorable Moments as an Animal Trainer....So Far

As the year comes to a close, it is a time for reflection. Here are some memorable moments for me in the animal training world. Enjoy!

Bottoms Up!
For five years I was part of a team that presented a bird show at the State Fair of Texas. One of my roles in the show was to do a short segment with a yellow naped Amazon parrot that sings seven songs. While we were on stage a man in his twenties was pacing back and forth off to the side. It was evident things were a little off. As the parrot was singing his little heart out I turned to look at the audience. Rather than smiling faces I saw a giant bare bottom! This meant the audience was getting a great view of the other side. Neither the bird nor I reacted. Instead we continued with our routine. Several men from the front row tackled the guy and pulled him aside. I chatted with many audience members after the show during the meet and greet and hardly anyone noticed. I was amazed.
Thunk, Thunk, Thunk
For many years I presented bird shows at Disney World in Orlando, FL. One routine involved having a large Eurasian eagle owl fly over the audience and land on a stump at the back of the house. For a fun volunteer experience a guest was invited on stage and the owl would be cued to fly towards and just over the head of the volunteer to land on another perch. This was to give the guest an awesome Kodak moment. However on this particular day the owl flew from her release box with a heavy astro-turf mat clutched in her talons. (The mat is used to catch droppings as she waited for her release.) As she flew to the back of the house the mat hit each and every guest in her flight path in the head. When she landed she sat with the mat firmly in her grasp. Owls have a tendency to hold on to things in their talons at all costs. I couldn’t help but burst into a fit of giggles. In fact I was laughing so hard I was crying. This was because I knew she had to fly back. This meant more face-thunking. Like the great performer she was, she completed the routine flawlessly with her giant mat in her clutches. I know I enjoyed that show immensely. I think the audience members not in her flight path did as well.

I have met my fair share of celebrities; however no one has made a greater impression on me than Sirocco the kakapo. Sirocco is famous for getting frisky with zoologist Mark Cawardine in this viral video. Kakapo are one of the most interesting species of parrot. They are unique in so many ways. They are nocturnal, flightless, solitary, lek breeding, giant and incredibly endangered. After learning Sirocco’s sexual behavior was a problem, I volunteered my services to see if I could help. Getting to train such an unusual, rare species was thrilling and rewarding. Sirocco took to training like a fish to water. He proved to be an incredible student. My most rewarding moment was when in one session he redirected his sexual behavior to the object we had designated. It convinced me we could get a handle on this problem behavior. I will also never forget traveling with him from the big city of Wellington to his summer home on Maud Island. It took a few car rides, a plane and a boat to get there. To make his boat ride less bumpy he sat on a lap in the cabin and took in the view. Surreal!

Out Go the Lights
I lecture a lot. Sometimes for 6-8 hours in a day. And I love it. I never seem to tire of it. Perhaps it is the pleasure of interacting with an audience. One of my favorites audiences are the folks at Parrot Festival. This annual event is targeted towards anyone with an interest in parrots. One year I was about three quarters of the way through my lecture when the lights flickered and then went out completely. The room had no windows. The doors from the room led to a dark hall. It was truly pitch black. Rather than panicking, somehow we calmly segued into a lengthy Q and A session about parrot behavior problems in complete darkness. People had to shout out questions because a raised hand could not be seen. Amazingly it all went pretty smoothly. Finally the generators kicked in and we continued with the presentation. Turned out the entire grid had gone dark. To add to the excitement a plane flew so close to the hotel we thought it was going to crash! See a clip from my lecture on Parrot Behavior Problems here.

In Your Face
I was lucky enough to make an appearance on the Jay Leno show back in 2000. Once again I had that infamous singing parrot with me. Prior to seeing if the bird would sing, Jay asked me a few questions. While I was answering I was reinforcing the parrot for sitting on his perch and waiting patiently. I was offering sunflower seeds which meant a little extra chewing activity for the parrot. Somehow the bird’s vigorous opening of a sunflower seed resulted in a perfectly aimed shell hitting Jay right in the face! I don’t think either of us could have planned it better. Fortunately the parrot went on to sing his song….although he took his sweet time which made me sweat bullets for a few seconds there. However it was a memorable segment and for a short while was part of their opening sequence for the Tonight Show.

Barbara Heidenreich
Good Bird Inc
Copyright 2011 Good Bird Inc

1 comment:

Kathy Heaton said...

Thank you for sharing your reminiscences. I enjoyed reading them, only wish there were more...