Training Dinosaurs: Watching Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park (film score)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember a little film called Jurassic Park? It was recently re-released in 3D. I had forgotten that it first came out 20 years ago; it’s fun to re-watch it with my older, behavior-savvy eyes.

I went to the theater with Alena (also blogging regularly here), and as it was a late-night showing and we were the only patrons in the theater, we could indulge in a little chat as we watched.


First off, I just have to say that the puppetry in the film is great. Supplemented by CGI, rather than wholly generated, it looks much more realistic. I’ve often complained of heavily-CG’d films, “Jurassic Park looked better fifteen years ago!”

(Walking with Dinosaurs is a documentary series which also used puppetry as a base for CGI to great results. Okay, yes, I may be a bit of a nerd.)

And the cinematography is fantastic as well, featuring a lot of great storytelling shots.

Leaving aside certain scientific advancements (Deinonychus, the species on which the film’s Velociraptors were based, is now thought to have been feathered), the film holds up pretty well.

Handling Exotics — the Really, Really Exotic

This is actual size. Even without predation, this animal requires respect.

This is actual size. Even without predation, this animal requires respect.

What bothered me now, as a behavior professional, was the casual way everyone treated the herbivores. Oh, they don’t eat meat, so they aren’t dangerous. Knowing what I know now about the training and care of exotics, I found myself tensing when the group began pawing and hugging the Triceratops — oh, Triceratops, we mourn you as we mourn the planet Pluto — or teasing Brachiosaurs to draw them close enough to pet. Do you know how tranquilizers affect dinosaurs? (Probably not; we’ve had decades to study them in modern exotics and still often consider them unreliable and potentially dangerous.) What if you send her into a panic while she’s down and helpless? And even the gentlest of large herbivores can be dangerous when frightened or startled, as mentioned in my post on training giraffes.

As the iconic Ian Malcolm says, the lack of humility before nature is the chracters’ downfall. And it’s not just a lack of respect for the predators, but for all the species. It’s not just “a big cow,” it’s an exotic animal with unique behaviors and instincts. You don’t get to just walk up and pet it.

Predators & Puzzles

But I knew I had gone over the ledge when we were rooting for the dinos to show their cognitive capabilities. (Memo: if ever you’re trapped in a predatory theme park from hell, you might not want to be near the behavior folk. They’re going to be busy geeking out over the puzzle-solving and might forget to actually, you know, get away.)

Someone had fun designing the movements for the featured Tyrannosaur and Velociraptors. While the film does make the nearly universal cinematic error of showing hunting animals vocalize while stalking (no, really, warning your prey that you’re coming is kind of not clever), many of the actual movements mimic those of my own dogs trying to root a chipmunk out of a wood pile or explore a Kong to see if it’s truly empty. It’s just that usually my dogs aren’t destroying a car.

…Actually, Laev did savage my husband’s car to get at a hiding squirrel. Tore off a bumper and left teeth marks in the fender. So, yeah.

Being a Doberman owner, I especially appreciated the terrier-like kill-shakes. And I loved how the Dilophosaurus gradually tested Nedry to see if he were dangerous before attacking (and, for some reason, using a threat display as it did; see above re warning prey).

And if you’ve ever seen a puppy first learn how doors can swing open, you’ve seen the Velociraptor learning to open the kitchen door. Puppies are much cuter about it, though, because they endanger only your socks.

Training A Dinosaur

The opening scene shows a transfer of a Velociraptor from a crate to the enclosure, and when the move goes wrong, a man is killed.

I leaned over to Alena and said, “If they’d only trained her to shift on cue, everything would have been fine.”

In zoos and similar facilities, animals are trained to “shift” from one enclosure to another, often with targeting. Because the animal is moving confidently, rather than being exposed or pushed into a new environment, and expecting reinforcement, the animal is more relaxed and less reactive.

Pressuring a dangerous animal, however, tends to either shut it down (which gives the impression of success, often temporary) or make it more imminently dangerous. Taser-ing the dino did not make her release the gatekeeper, of course — it only made her more frantic and more reactive. How would an animal know that releasing the human would make the pain stop? No, all she knows is that humans are surrounding her and making her hurt, and she has one of them in her jaws.

Laura being eaten by dinosaur

Laura being devoured. Nom nom nom.

I have seen dogs doing the exact same thing, as humans shouted and jerked collars or hit them to make them release a toy or stolen object or even flesh. Adding more agitation and emotion only makes the situation worse. Much better to train the shift or the release before you need it, or at least to keep your cool when you do.

(No, that doesn’t quite mean you should calmly walk away if a dog is actively chewing on a person. But rational behavior will get you further even in that situation.)

The park uses 10,000-volt fences to contain the dinosaurs, and the Velociraptors are systematically testing them for weakness. Unbelievable? Not so much. When I was a kid we had a dog who would walk the fence with her head cocked, listening for the faint supersonic hum of the electric wire which ran along the fence to keep her from climbing out. And elephants have been seen carefully destroying high-voltage fences, even working as a team to smash or short out fences with a tree.

As I went to bed that night, I noticed the elephants lining up along the fence, facing out towards their former home. It looked ominous. I was woken several hours later by one of the reserve’s rangers, shouting, ‘The elephants have gone! They’ve broken out!’ The two adult elephants had worked as a team to fell a tree, smashing it onto the electric fence and then charging out of the enclosure….  They had somehow found the generator that powered the electric fence around the reserve. After trampling it like a tin can, they had pulled the concrete-embedded fence posts out of the ground like matchsticks, and headed north.
The Elephant Whisperer

Clever girls.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous fun to train a dinosaur? We’d learn so much about them. And it would be fantastic bragging rights.

Alena and I did have the chance, on the way home from ClickerExpo 2012, to stop off and train some dinosaurs.

That’s probably the closest we get, until we bring back more extinct species.

Want to see more behavior comments at the movies? Try Behavior Concepts — from the Avengers!

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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