Women train exotic pets — and husbands, too

October 25, 2006
By Jerry Harkavy The Associated Press

During her year spent researching a book about the nation’s premier school for exotic animal trainers, Amy Sutherland observed students teaching a cougar to walk on a leash, a camel to shoot hoops and a hyena to pirouette on command.

But it was when Sutherland applied those techniques to train her husband, Scott, to pick up his dirty laundry, drive more slowly and stop stomping around the house when he misplaced his keys that her readership swelled to numbers she had never imagined.

Sutherland’s success in modifying Scott’s behaviors became grist for one of the most popular New York Times columns in memory, setting the stage for a follow-up book and perhaps even a movie deal.

It also propelled sales of the book, “Kicked, Bitten and Scratched,” an illuminating and entertaining look at the Exotic Animal Training and Management program at Southern California’s Moorpark Community College, which has mostly female graduates who are sought by marine parks, zoos, Hollywood studios, circuses and aquariums.

The program, known as EATM, employs progressive training techniques, rejecting the old-school approach of dominance and punishment that evokes an image of a lion tamer wielding a chair in one hand and a whip in the other.

Instead, EATM bases its methods on psychologist B.F. Skinner’s conditioning theory, which relies on positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors and negative reinforcement to avoid unwanted ones.

So it was perhaps inevitable that Sutherland, 47, decided to test these ideas on her husband to see whether they might offer a fresh approach toward easing what she calls “the small annoyances that couples run into, the little things that drive you crazy about each other.”

Instead of berating Scott for leaving his soiled clothes on the floor, she would offer praise when he tossed a dirty sock or shirt in the hamper. Driving a bit more slowly also drew a positive response. Conversely, when Scott would tear through the house looking for his keys, Sutherland simply ignored the behavior, which gradually began to ease.

“These are human psychology ideas that the trainers borrowed and I just borrowed back,” Sutherland said.

The New York Times column, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage,” appeared June 25 in the newspaper’s Sunday Style section and immediately interested readers. The Times’ Maureen Dowd drew from it for a column of her own.

Sutherland’s column spent a month at or near the top of the newspaper’s list of most e-mailed stories, which in the fast changing world of the Internet is comparable to long runs of books such as “The Da Vinci Code” or “Tuesdays With Morrie” on best-seller lists.

“It’s quite extraordinary,” said Richard Meislin, The New York Times’ associate editor for Internet publishing. “It really has taken off and gotten wave after wave of interest.”

Meislin said the “Modern Love” column reflected reader interest in spousal relationships. “It’s the kind of thing people send to their friends.”

Sutherland was surprised and a little mystified by the column’s staying power, but she offered two possible explanations.

“It was funny,” she said, “and some of the ideas make sound sense, even though they come from the animal world.”

Aside from a few e-mails from men who took offense at being compared to animals, Sutherland said the response to the column has been favorable. She is working on a proposal to expand it into a short book and has been approached about a possible movie.

Sutherland had chosen the title “Kicked, Bitten and Scratched” while that book was in the proposal stage, but wondered whether she may have been stretching the truth. The time she spent at EATM, roughly one week per month, showed that it was no exaggeration.

“Over the course of the year, a student got her finger bitten badly by the hyena while working with it through a cage. A kinkajou — his name is Birdman — sank his teeth into two students, into their hands. And students were forever getting nipped by the parrots; one had her whole lip cut open,” she said.

Sutherland, who emerged unscathed from her research, always was careful to stay out of the way. “It was not only for my own safety,” she said. “I didn’t want them to always think they had to worry about me.”

Animal training is dominated by women, and the imbalance is reflected in the enrollment: At one time, EATM had only two men in a class of 50. Sutherland said it’s the only dangerous profession in which women lead in numbers.

Women are drawn to it because of their predisposition toward nurturing, she said, “and women are more willing to clean as part of a profession than men are.”

Sutherland learned about EATM while talking to trainers during a freelance writing assignment on the shooting of the Walt Disney film, “102 Dalmatians.” A former newspaper reporter and food columnist, she had completed her first book, “Cook-Off: Recipe Fever in America,” which explores the world of cooking competitions, and was seeking a subject worthy of a second.

A dog lover — she has an Australian shepherd and a border collie mix — Sutherland’s experience at the school had her thinking seriously about becoming a dog trainer. And she finds she cooks a lot less than in the past.

“Before this, I was really interested in food, and now I’d have to say I’m interested in animals.”

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