We all know the world is not perfect and trainers do not ultimately determine the fate of their animal, however they should strive to protect and care, making their animals life easier, both physically and mentally.
In a recent forum, trainers were discussing moves to remove the use of toys, such as rings and balls. What may not be realised is that these toys play an important role in secondary reinforcement, their removal will be detrimental to an animals wellbeing.
The benefit of using these toys is enrichment.
We marine mammal trainers would like to know that our animals have a stimulating life, with opportunities to engage in natural behaviours. Encouraging natural behaviours, increases activity and allows animals some control over their environment. Enrichment helps satisfy both the physical and psychological needs of animals and allows them to make choices. Thus, animal enrichment creates a win-win-win situation for both animals and trainers.
We trainers provide for an animals needs, so we must assist and encourage the use of toys for instance, as methods to aid physical and mental stimulation, which in turn encourage natural behaviours. Chasing after a toy, or jumping over a tube, or challenging each other to do so, all involve natural instincts and behaviours.
Enriching an animal’s environment comes in many forms, including altering the physical environment, modifying animal care and creating stimulation. You will see play with plastic tubes and play with a ball used in most animal facilities, not just with marine mammals. These are examples of adding “furniture” for an animal to play with that enriches their environment.
I have read criticism of videos showing dolphins playing with a ball, from people who have not idea about these animals and they make a big issue about it, without any knowledge whatsoever to support their comment. We trainers know that living with the animals every day gives us knowledge and experience, to see the real benefit of utilising such toys.
We have rescued animals near to dying and during their recuperation a toy is part of the process, providing big improvements in their health and well-being. I have heard comments such as, how can a ball be more benefit for these animals than playing with other animals in the wild? Well, these animals include ones saved from the wild, is it better to save them with a ball or let them die? If an animal can play all day with a ball and not get tired, how much pleasure, stimulation and enrichment is then being achieved for that animal?