Positive Behavior: A Conversation with Otto Fad, Behavior and Welfare Specialist at Precision Behavi

Animal behavior is the backbone of the modern zoo and no one knows this better than Otto Fad, Behavior and Welfare Specialist at Precision Behavior Animal Consulting. “Everyone who works around animals should have an understanding of behavioral fundamentals because whether they are aware of it or not, they are constantly impacting and changing the behavior of animals in their care,” he explained. “Behavior is dynamic, always changing. So the choice is you can train and teach animals in an informed, intentional and enlightened manner or you can leave their behavior to chance.” Fad rose to prominence as Elephant Manager at Busch Gardens, a position he maintained from 2004 to April 2017. Here is his story.

@ Otto Fad

Otto Fad started his career at SeaWorld Orlando, where he first learned the system of positive reinforcement. However, he came into the field almost by accident. “I wanted to make documentary films about whales and dolphins so in January 1987 I showed up at the HR offices of SeaWorld and applied for a job in the photo/video department,” he recalled. “The HR Rep told me they didn’t have any openings, but seeing my educational and athletic background, asked if I had ever thought about being a trainer.” Fad began preparing for tryouts three days later and prepared diligently for his swim test. “I smoked the swim test although I broke my eardrum on the free-dive portion,” he said. “My tryout group included a couple of experienced dolphin trainers. I was the first one out of the showers, but the last one called in to interview. At the end of the interview, Thad Lacinak offered me the job and, with absolutely zero hesitation, I accepted.”

@ SeaWorld

To this day, Fad credits his mentors at SeaWorld for teaching him a lot about animal behavior and husbandry. He started working in the Sea Lion and Otter Stadium with sea lions, walruses and sea otters. “Ted Turner, who went on to teach psychology and behavior in college, was my supervisor and a stickler for fundamentals,” Fad noted. “He drilled us every day on operant principles.” Within the year, he was transferred to Shamu Stadium to work with orcas.

@ SeaWorld

“I got to do everything with the killer whales,” Otto Fad reflected. “It was a great experience and helped shape me as a behaviorist. Being in the water with an animal that smart and potentially dangerous keeps you honest behaviorally. That is, with smaller animals and birds, you may be tempted to take behavioral short cuts… but when your life depends upon your decisions and your relationships, that’s a powerful incentive. Although credit is seldom given these days, much of the advance of positive reinforcement techniques can be attributed to what we did at SeaWorld.”

@ SeaWorld

In 2004, Fad made the move from SeaWorld to Busch Gardens with the task of completely redeveloping the principles used to care for the park’s Asian elephants. “When Anheuser Busch bought the SeaWorld parks, it presented an opportunity to improve the welfare and behavioral management of animals at Busch Gardens,” Fad elaborated. “As Corporate Vice President of Animal Training, Thad Lacinak had a chance to consult and coach the keepers at Busch. Many of the staff members were receptive to learning about positive reinforcement training but the elephant program was brutal and traditional. It was done the way elephants had been trained for thousands of years.” Lacinak convinced the company they needed to switch to a protected contact, positive-reinforcement system including an elaborate new barn. Fad was chosen to have the first Elephant Manager position at the park.

@ Busch Gardens

@ Busch Gardens

Immediately, Otto Fad began a radical transformation in the culture of Busch Gardens’ elephant program. “The big thing we did was to use a context-shift approach,” he explained. “From behavioral research and experience with the killer whales at SeaWorld, we knew that the environment in which a behavior occurs has a tremendous effect on attitudes and behaviors. I didn’t want the elephants to think of us like the old keepers at all. We planned ahead extensively, got rid of the old stimuli and changed everything all at once. The old guys walked the elephants onto the habitat from the old barn one day and left. Then we stepped up. That moment, the elephants’ lives changed and they knew it. New staff, new methods, new barn. We chose not to do it gradually to avoid introducing gray areas -- we went “cold turkey” to reduce confusion. In building the new elephant team, we placed a premium on behavioral knowledge and experience. In my opinion, that’s the best way to go. It’s easier to bring people into a positive-reinforcement culture from the beginning rather than trying to change folks with old ideas and habits. The mindset required to modify behavior solely on positives is nearly antithetical to the traditional method that relies on defining appropriate behavior by sanctioning inappropriate or undesired behavior.”

@ Busch Gardens

Before implementation, there was a lot of resistance to the change from the staff of Busch Gardens. “All the elephant keepers and even some of the veterinarians signed a letter to August Busch III threatening to quit if we went to protected contact,” Fad remembered. Fortunately, the company stood behind the decision since they knew it was the right thing to do. Only one member of the old elephant team stayed on, the others were offered positions elsewhere. “We did have one experienced keeper from the old team, Paul Cromwell, who made the transition and played an important role in the development of our program,” Fad added.

@ Busch Gardens

“At Busch, we sought to build a program based on a singular focus: the welfare of the elephants,” Otto Fad reflected. “We set high standards for ourselves. Our team knew the elephants’ needs always came first, then the guests,’ then our own. It’s a hard physical job and the behavior focus required brainpower and mental effort, not just compassion. It was a lot to ask for and for the first seven or eight years, we had the highest turnover rate in the zoo. But we didn’t lower our standards or expectations and the folks who thrived became influential and fulfilled. We developed a great team and culture with extraordinary individuals, including six who have gone on to become supervisors and managers in the zoo field."

@ Busch Gardens

“The elephants responded surprisingly quickly,” he continued. “We started from scratch and shaped all the new behaviors with new criteria and cues. In less than six months, we fully trained blood-draws, separations and footwork. The vets became believers because they had better and more consistent access than under the old system and we also found that the elephants’ cortisol levels decreased. “We encouraged the elephants to move around a lot, both in training sessions and with enrichment outside of sessions," Fad noted. "Beginning in 2008, the herd began enjoying a daily “enrichment shift” in the middle of the day, every day. We were able to make efficient use of the habitat and the other resources at our disposal – most notably heavy equipment and the sweat-drenched creativity of the trainers -- to encourage the elephants to get lots of exercise. We made it different every day to keep it fun and interesting. One of my biggest roles was as a disruptor, to identify patterns and predictabilities and to interrupt them.”

@ Busch Gardens

“Another innovation we were proud of was the establishment of an Elephant Interaction Area (EIA) in 2011," Fad said. "The park didn’t have to spend a lot of money, but the addition of an area on the habitat where we could do husbandry procedures had a tremendous positive impact on the elephants and also our guests. We ended up doing almost all of our husbandry – blood draws, footwork, even rectal ultrasounds -- on the habitat in front of guests. The transparency was great, and the elephants and guests really flocked to the EIA, which was a small corner of the habitat. Elephants did not have to be isolated from their conspecifics even temporarily, and the amount of time that they spent outside in the fresh air, on the soft dirt increased to about 21-22 hours per day.”

@ Otto Fad

During Fad’s tenure at Busch Gardens, his elephant program built strong relationships with several universities and collaborated on wide range of research projects. “That’s an important responsibility in the zoo,” he said, “To ensure that we take advantage of the opportunity to continue learning and sharing knowledge. A progressive zoo can be a great learning environment and much of what we studied would be difficult or impossible to do in the ‘wild.’ In particular, as humans and elephants are driven into closer proximity and inevitable conflict in their range countries, we need to do more cognitive research in order to better understand their needs and abilities to adapt.”

@ Otto Fad

@ Otto Fad

Otto Fad strongly believes positive reinforcement dramatically improves the wellbeing and behavior of every animal. “One of the greatest values of using positives is you’re not suppressing behavior,” he explained. “You’re encouraging the animals to express themselves, to be creative, to innovate... to use their brains. You have to be attentive to them. If they offer something you really like, you reinforce it. Two of the most important things in my opinion are using a variety of reinforcers, for example tactile reinforcement, toys, games, etc. I loved doing sessions with the elephants with no food. Some people think they’re just participating because you’re feeding them, so I enjoyed demonstrating that we could do a learning or husbandry interaction where all I’d do is play little games with elephants and give them rub-downs. When you do sessions without food, it forces you to be creative and pay attention to what the animals really like.”

@ Busch Gardens

Positive enforcement works bests when it breaks routine. “Nature uses a variable schedule of reinforcement,” Fad elaborated. “The reinforcement schedule needs to be variable so it will be kind of random. One way to think about it is, if you’re going to have an interaction with someone would you rather sit down and have a sandwich at the end or stop every thirty seconds to have a cracker? I’d rather think and work first, and have the meal later. An animal doesn’t succeed every time they go out foraging. A variable schedule is a natural reinforcement schedule. One of our jobs is to keep the animals stimulated so where’s the fun in offering the same rewards every single time? We see what the animal wants to do, what really engages them, as opposed to just the minimum to maintain some level of cooperation. Of course, with choice-based training, you need to understand that if you’re boring, the elephants can choose to ignore you or do something else.” In addition to elephants, Fad served as a consultant in helping implement positive reinforcement husbandry to the park’s orangutans and gibbons.

@ Busch Gardens

Otto Fad’s wife Kelly is the Supervisor of Edge of Africa at Busch Gardens and holds a similar approach to animal husbandry. “Her team does a terrific job with the lions, hyenas and hippos,” he remarked. “Kelly and I talk a lot about behavior. She has the same commitment to positive, relationship-based training, even though she didn’t have the benefit of learning under extraordinary behavioral mentors like I did. Her team takes really great care of the animals and she has done things I can’t imagine like hybrid raising hyena cubs. She had to half hand-raise, half socialize hyena cubs twice- hardly anyone has done that. She also hand-raised the lion pride they have now. The observational skills and behavioral judgment she has is amazing. All the cats will come over, line up and take an injection.”

@ Busch Gardens

@ Busch Gardens

In 2014, Otto Fad and his team took on the challenge of integrating Spike, a bull Asian elephant, into Busch Garden’s herd of Asian elephant cows. “Fully socializing Spike was huge,” he commented. While traditionally many zoos have shied away from integrating bull elephants into matriarchal herds, Busch took the challenge head on and the transition turned out to be quite successful. Since that time, Spike has not been isolated, he has built strong relationships with the female elephants, and he has bred with four of the park’s five elephant cows. In April 2017, Otto Fad left Busch Gardens to serve as Behavior and Welfare Specialist at Precision Behavior, a group founded by Lacinak and Angi Millwood that consults with zoos and aquariums around the world. “I still get to work with elephants, but also with lots of other animals, and with some really good people at top-notch institutions.”

@ Busch Gardens

“Animal welfare has to be job one,” Otto Fad reflected. “To keep moving forward, I think zoos must encourage a behavioral focus. They should hire and promote behaviorally-focused people and give them time to provide the best behavioral welfare possible. For elephants, I would like to see zoological and veterinary associations push to eliminate bullhooks. Not just in restricted contact or free contact scenarios but get rid of them, not even keep them for ‘emergencies.’ The hook can be a crutch. The really good elephant programs are among the best zoo behavior programs, but are still under-represented in the policy-making bodies.”

@ Busch Gardens

“There have been many encouraging improvements (in zoo elephant husbandry) in recent years that are becoming more widely adopted such as bigger elephant herds, letting elephants sleep outside on their large habitats and soft substrates, improved diets and nutrition, and fully socializing bull elephants either in bull herds or with females in larger herds... just to name a few," Otto Fad concluded. "Changing to protected-contact elephant management was mostly an occupational safety decision. PC allows positive-reinforcement training to take place, but is not synonymous with it. A lot of people confuse the two. Sturdy steel and rockwork does not make a good PRT program.”

@ Otto Fad

#BuschGardens

You Might Also Like: