Understanding Animal Training: A Visit to Georgia Aquarium

As part of the yearlong Specialty Development Team program for 2011, the four of us from PGAV were lucky enough to be hosted for the day by the Georgia Aquarium dolphins’ trainers: Director of Animal Training, Michael Hunt, and Assistant Director, Lisa Mignogna.

Our day included an amazing back of house tour with the trainers as well as the Aquarium’s Vice President of Facilities and Operations, Heather McKeen.  We got a fascinating look into the facilities that support the day-to-day life of the trainers, such as the large wetsuit and costume sanitizing and storage areas, the offices, the break room, and, of course, the show pool and holding pools.

While visiting the holding areas, many of the dolphins were quite taken with our visit and spent a lot of time trying to get our attention!

Lisa showed us the toys used for enrichment with the dolphins, hidden away in a plastic deck box, and described how training at the Aquarium has occurred so far.  The dolphins, many of which came to the Aquarium from Dolphin Quest in Hawaii, needed training before arriving at the Aquarium, so the trainers spent a month of quality time with the dolphins in Hawaii “getting to know each other.”

Now at the Aquarium, the trainers work with the dolphins daily.  All the trainers work with all of the dolphins to ensure flexibility in staffing the show.  Each show is customized to the dolphins that are working in that particular show as, just like humans, the dolphins learn at different paces.

After spending a couple of hours with the staff, we were treated to an afternoon show.  The show itself is an over-the-top adventure seeking to engage every age group and interest level.  It is moderately successful in that regard, but the real stars are of course the dolphins and the trainers.  The show is as grand as a SeaWorld production with lots of dolphins doing lots of cool stuff.

We had a great day at the Aquarium and very much appreciate the generosity of the staff in sharing part of their day with us.  Their insights were invaluable.  And thank you PGAV for being so supportive of our budding professional development program.