FOR a field biologist stuck in the city, the wildlife dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History are among New York’s best offerings. One recent Saturday, I paused by the display for elk, an animal I study. Like all the dioramas, this one is a great tribute. I have observed elk behavior until my face froze and stared at the data results until my eyes stung, but this scene brought back to me the graceful beauty of a tawny elk cow, grazing the autumn grasses.
As I lingered, I noticed a mother reading an interpretive panel to her daughter. It recounted how the reintroduction of wolves in the mid-1990s returned the Yellowstone ecosystem to health by limiting the grazing of elk, which are sometimes known as “wapiti” by Native Americans. “With wolves hunting and scaring wapiti from aspen groves, trees were able to grow tall enough to escape wapiti damage. And tree seedlings actually had a chance.” The songbirds came back, and so did the beavers. “Got it?” the mother asked. The enchanted little girl nodded, and they wandered on.
This story — that wolves fixed a broken Yellowstone by killing and frightening elk — is one of ecology’s most famous. It’s the classic example of what’s called a “trophic cascade,” and has appeared in textbooks, on National Geographic centerfolds and in this newspaper. Americans may know this story better than any other from ecology, and its grip on our imagination is one of the field’s proudest contributions to wildlife conservation. But there is a problem with the story: It’s not true.
Engaging a wild animal in some simple shaping procedure can give you a startling glimpse of what might be called species temperament—of how not only that individual but that species tends to tackle the challenges in its environment. Teaching training to my class of keepers at the National Zoo, I used a number of different species as demonstration animals. I stood on my side of the fence, using a whistle as conditioned reinforcer, and tossing in food; the animals moved about freely on their side. The polar bears turned out to be immensely persistent and dogged. One bear which accidentally got reinforced while sitting still took to offering “sitting still” as a response; slavering hopefully, eyes glued to the trainer, it could sit still for half an hour or more, hoping for reinforcement. It seems possible that in an animal which stalks seals on ice floes for a living, this kind of tenacity and patience has important survival value.
Species temperament shows up in many, many species in a shaping session. When I inadvertently failed to reinforce a hyena, instead of getting mad or quitting, it turned on the charm, sitting down in front of me, grinning and chuckling like a fur-covered Johnny Carson. In shaping a wolf to go around a bush in its yard, I made the same mistake, failing to reinforce it when I should have; the wolf looked over its shoulder, made eye contact with a long, thoughtful stare, then ran on, right around the bush, earning all the kibble I had in my pocket; it had sized up the situation, perhaps deciding that I was still in the game since I was still watching, and it had taken a chance and guessed at what would work.
Sometimes the animals understand reinforcement perfectly. Melanie Bond, in charge of the National Zoo’s great apes, had started reinforcing Ham, the chimpanzee, for various behaviors. One morning he was accumulating his food rather than eating it, with the intention, Melanie supposed, of eating outdoors. When Ham saw that at last Melanie was going over to open the door and let him outside, he knew what to do: He handed her a stalk of celery.
No, because animals aren’t killed for fur when they have young. Fur trapping season is in the winter when young animals are fully grown and independent.
*sigh* This old trope again?
then shouldn’t this also say “don’t dive or ride in a vehicle as these babies miss their mother, is she under someones tire?” … seriously i’m pretty darn sure cars kill way more wildlife (especially raccoon) than trapping or even random hunting… not trying to pick a fight or anything, just stating that trapping seems like the least of your problems when it comes to animal safety.