Thursday, April 26, 2012


The 70’s Funk band BT Express said it best , "Do it, do it, do it till you’re satisfied" this past weekend I did exactly that. A cosmic convergence of the greatest minds in animal behavior from the scholarly to the practical descended on Warwick, RI bringing with them their collective insights, not to mention, Vietnamese pigs, rabbits, crustaceans, a Costa Rican Armadillo and an African Horned Tortoise. You might be asking yourself, "Did I miss out on something truly bad ass?" If you weren't there, then yes, you missed something truly bad ass. I did not however and for that I will be forever grateful to Katenna Jones, Marje Alonso and Co. for having me along to thump the Thinkpads into submission whenever they acted up. A small price to pay for such unbridled awesomeness. Come now, surely I'm exaggerating and by the way, is awesomeness even a word? Well the bright red squiggly line that underscores every entry of the word "prestadigitation" (right there, I did it again) is absent so yes, it's a word and no, I'm not exaggerating.

This year's conference was very different for me than last year. My first time around as a conference volunteer, chronicled in this blog, was an experience that so expanded on my world and my role in it, no future conference could have the same impact. There was plenty of time to take notes, chat with the other volunteers. The glow from that conference stuck with me for several days. It was life changing. This for me was the best of sequels but by now I've lived for one full year in a world where these brilliant individuals exist, this was The Empire Strikes Back, awesome beyond measure, but not my first light sabre. When the conference wrapped I thought I’d better start collecting my thoughts before they start getting fuzzy, so here it goes. Last year I came away from the conference with some very big ideas to think about. It was broad and in many ways couldn't have been a better initial exposure. I don't think there's any conscious attempt at creating a theme, they seem to have emerged organically and to that end, this year seemed more nuts and bolts with a big emphasis on scientific method. Here's a brief outline of the speakers beating that drum. Dr. Sophia Yin on forming a hypothesis and subjecting it to scrutiny. Linda Case MS on understanding the science behind dog foods, Dr. Moon Fanelli on the influence of genetics in animal behavior, and that's just scratching the surface. Gail Fisher, Dr. Aubrey Fine, Dr. Ruth Colwill, one great speaker after another sharing the results of their hard work with us. Every speaker I saw stayed around afterwards to answer questions and every one of them was gracious with their time.

My favorite speaker was Brenda Aloff and while I couldn't manage a decent photo of her (see below) no one rolled with the punches like she did and no one I saw was more down to earth or approachable. There were technical problems with the rented equipment throughout the conference, and while everyone deftly made use of the time to answer questions from the audience no one had more fun with those moments than Brenda did. She should've bludgeoned me with that laptop, but she managed that whole room like a pro, myself included, with good humor and a great boisterous laugh. She could not have been kinder to me as I fiddled to kick start her presentation over and over again.

Lily Strassberg, a volunteer last year, was a presenter this year. Wowing attendees, including Karen Pryor, with her clicker training research on fiddler crabs and crayfish. Lily started with the genesis of this idea which started when she was a junior in high school, accepting a challenge from one of her teachers who warned her this was a nutty idea that will never work. She proved it did work, earned the nickname "Crab Girl" (though she prefers Poseidon) and just like that a future star was born. For the conference Lily walked attendees through this process and while this might strike you as a bit goofy, watching the crabs respond to cues and race across their small pools to "ring" a  sinker for a bit of food was one of the coolest things I've seen in some time. 

It was an exciting three days, running from room to room for spur of the moment problem solving, rubbing elbows with the best in the business, it was exhilarating. In the end though I had less time to sit through as many of the presentations as I did last year and less time still to talk with some of the other volunteers and new friends, many of them my peers in the training world. Joyce, Shana, Jenn, Sue, Liz and Alysha, you guys are the best. I hope we can all get together and do this again. 

One last thing. It's difficult for me not to notice how disproportionate the ratio of men to women are at conferences and seminars. At several points throughout the long weekend I took a random head count. The average I came up with was 1:5 men to women. Growing up in the 60's and 70's there were plenty of professions with gender contrasts including nurses, secretaries and librarians. Of course much of that has changed over the years but here's the rub, the contrast is only apparent when it comes to the academic component of training. There are easily as many male trainers as female so where were they? I don't have the answers, it's a genuine mystery to me and I'm surprised this contrast exists at all. To this point I echo my opening sentiment and say to my brothers in the training world, don't miss it if it comes this way again. You'll be missing something truly great. 

No veg from Cranston? Who knew?