Thursday, January 29, 2015

Graduation, Jobs, and Taco's Functional Assessments

I graduated last month with a BS in Integrative Animal Biology and minor in Psychology. Feelings of achievement should follow such a difinitive moment in my life but instead I am left with a feeling of relief. Passing tests were just about avoiding shocks that had always been present in my life, and now they are gone. I felt as if I was another lab rat given electrical stimulation for every wrong turn I made, but now the shock has disappeared from my metal floor. To me, universities symbolize growth, innovation, freedom, and generally, truth. While these fanciful ideas hold true for the outside observer and the many faculty, most of the student population spend their lives in constant fear and panic because of improperly applied behavioral principles, principles that these institutions teach but do not put into practice. Pointing fingers is a useless pursuit and doesn't yield results but teaching others how to properly apply behavioral principles improves grades, increases productivity, and builds a person up rather than breaking them down. I confess that much of my college experience was one consisting of a great anxiety and looking for behavioral principles to combat it. The system taught me the letters of the alphabet, and judged me by them: A, B, C, D, F. This rating scale gave me the feeling of being constantly judged, labeled, and categorized into places I didn't belong simply because I was afraid of being labeled as "not good enough". At work and with friends I'm someone different, a confident young girl that knows what she's all about. Isn't it strange? Behavior is nothing if not complex.

And now the big gambles in life are on my plate. I'm looking for a job. Though my budget is low I have more confidence in my abilities than I ever did while struggling in college because my skills with money are forces to be reckoned with. By the time I was 17 I had $2,000 in my name, saved from years of penny collecting, lawn trimmings, and birthday cash. While impressive, minimum wage can only get you so far.

There are many animal related job opportunities out there that have caught my eye: Exhibit Educator, Animal Ambassador, Outreach Coordinator, Veterinary Assistant, Bird Trainer. All sound lucrative on my minimum wage, 28 hours a week, salary. Thanks Obama.

And while this post begins on a thoughtful, solemn view there remains the passion and dedication I have for behavior, birds, learning, and teaching. I have taken in another foster bird for Florida Parrot Rescue, a Yellow-naped Amazon by the name of Taco. Taco had been waiting to come into the rescue for over a year, and when finally able to come in showed some nasty behavior in foster care. I have recently been assigned the "Behavior Educator" position at FPR so Taco naturally came to me.

Taco has been a great learning experience with how quickly behavior can change in response to the consequences we provide. Like all the amazons I've met he really loves to eat, and as I've learned the more motivated the individual the faster a behavior can change. He (I say "he" but Taco says both "pretty boy" and "pretty girl" so I guess no one knows!) was very quick to learn several targeting behaviors, step up, take liquids from a syringe, and step onto a scale. But on the flip side he also learns very quickly to like or dislike someone based on their movements and how they react to him. For instance my roommate does his best to ignore the bird because he just doesn't care for animals with feathers. For the first few weeks of having Taco he showed relaxed body language when my roommate enters the room, unfortunately my roommate has moved quickly around Taco's cage several times causing him to startle, causing Taco to now show eye pinning, tail flaring, and swaying behaviors when my roommate enters the room. While this isn't a problem for us it is something to be aware of and to prevent it from occurring. The functional assessments for Taco's calm and not-calm set of behaviors looks like this.

FA 1.

A: Friend walks to cage

B: Taco show comfortable body language (relaxed nape, wings close to body, loose body feathers)

C: Friend bends down near cage and Taco shows uncomfortable body language.

PFB: Every time my friend bends down he will continue to scare Taco. Taco will be less likely to exhibit calm behaviors when my roommate bends down near the cage and will likely exhibit less calm behaviors when he sees my roommate, indicating positive punishment (P+) is being used on Taco's behavior.

FA 2.

A: Friend bends back up quickly near cage.
B: Taco continues showing uncomfortable body language (raised nape, wings slightly away from the body showing red, tight body feathers)

C: Friend walks away and Taco shows comfortable body language.

PFB: Taco will continue to show uncomfortable body language until my friend walks away. Taco will be more likely to show uncomfortable body language behavior in the future until my friend removes himself indicating negative reinforcement (R-) is being used on Taco's behavior.

Because my roommate has been unknowingly using negative reinforcement (R-) on Taco's uncomfortable body language behavior he has been increasing its occurrence in the future, not just that but by using positive punishment (P+) on his comfortable body language behavior he has been decreasing its occurrence in the future as well! These FA's clearly show what is going on in scientific terms and I hope they help you in understanding what is going on with your pets as well. Try preventing these occurrence from happening or start going at a slower pace and using R+ for each approximation you take.

I think that's all I have to write for now.
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