Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Natural Encounters Workshop 2016: Overview

Last week I attended the Natural Encounters Workshop in Winter Haven, Florida. It was a full five days of education with some wonderful instructors, headed up by Steve Martin and Dr. Susan Friedman. I had heard about the workshop while taking Susan’s Living and Learning with Animals (LLA) online course. I recommend that course and this workshop for anyone wishing to learn more about the science of behavior.

It’s always interesting to see how clinics and workshops are set up and experience different styles of teaching and presenting. I felt this workshop was a wonderful balance of lecture/presentation, demonstrations, sharing, and hands-on training. Attending any event which is based in positive reinforcement methods is a joy: Clicker Expo, clinics with Alexandra Kurland, and others really make one appreciate how different it feels to be with other positive reinforcement trainers. 

The daily schedule began with a wonderful spread of breakfast options with which to fill our plates before we sat down in the classroom. We were encouraged throughout to eat, drink and be merry. Steve is an amazing host who welcomed each of us onto his ranch, into his home, and into the lives and training of his birds. When telling anyone who I was going to be learning from, I would say, “Steve Martin, not the comedian”. But I have to revise that because Steve is not only warm and welcoming but pretty funny in his own right. 

After we had our breakfast and coffee laid out around our notebooks (fat binders we were handed on arrival with printouts of all power point slides as well as a resource section), either Susan or Steve would present a power point. Susan’s were as meaty as in her LLA course; they were filled with gem quotes, thought provoking slides, and video clips to illustrate various points. This was my third time hearing some of this information (having taken advantage of the opportunity to re-take the LLA course for free after the first time through) but I still found myself listening intently, scribbling notes, and having new “ahas”.  

Steve’s presentations included amazing videos, slides and stories of training animals all over the world. He’s been a consultant for zoos on many continents, travels regularly for enjoyment and photography (Africa and the Far East to name a few places), and has influenced the lives of many animals for the better. He has watched the evolution of training over the decades and is a treasure trove of training history up to the present moment as Natural Encounters has shows at Disney World and two (I believe) that travel around the country. He is dedicated to the absolute best welfare that he and his trainers and staff can provide. 

After the morning presentation, Steve would outline our training plans for the day. We were broken down into teams for the week of four participants assigned to a team leader, most of whom were NEI trainers. The participants were a wonderful blend of zookeepers, animal trainers (including dog trainers), companion bird owners, and other professionals. If you think Disney World is all about Mickey Mouse and the rides, let me tell you there is a whole subculture of incredible animal trainers as well.  I considered myself very fortunate to have Wouter Stellaard as team leader. Currently the head trainer at Columbus Zoo, Wouter had previously been a trainer and VP at NEI. He was an excellent coach with a wonderful sense of humor. 

When we headed to the birds, Steve began by demonstrating our training plan for that session. We had each been assigned a Macaw to train for the week, and each team had been assigned a Corvid. After watching the demonstration we broke into our teams and moved on to our own birds, taking turns with the Corvid day to day, and taking turns with our team leader’s attention with our Macaws. 

After the morning training, we returned to the classroom for a hearty lunch and a few minutes to share stories with each other. The afternoon repeated the morning schedule of lecture, demo and training. Each day ended with more food (this time crackers and cheese and vegetables and more, along with quite a variety of wine, beer and other beverages) and a “talk down” where participants and team leaders alike shared thoughts from their day. All the team leaders were confident, friendly and encouraging which I believe is a testament to Steve’s work. 
next up: Introductory Training
Viper, the Pied Crow our team worked with

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this. It sounds like a great learning opportunity.