Broken. Most people view this word in a poor light, especially in the animal world, and I want to change their view. How? Through the story of an animal I once knew.
In the animal world we hear it a lot; Breaking a horse to be ridden, broken dogs through hoarding neglect, submission through an Alpha Roll to break a behavior, Learned Helplessness from an abusive training regime. Even in the animal world “broken” is seen as a horror story by many. But I have a story to tell you.
Back when I was in college; working two jobs, going to school, and volunteering (No wonder I had anxiety! Jesus people, give us college kids a break.) I took in my first foster animal from Florida Parrot Rescue. A 30+ year old male Moluccan cockatoo named Jojo. Jojo exhibited many behavioral characteristics of a wild-caught bird and responded to flocks I found on YouTube. Being wild-caught, thankfully, meant he was also comfortably independent. Most captive raised cockatoos have no idea how to function without a human by their side. Even with this benefit Jojo wasn’t deemed adoptable.
I can make this into a longer story but I won’t. God knows most audiences can’t keep going after 3 paragraphs, I lost half of you already. You mean you’re still here? Great, let’s wrap this up.
Jojo was a bird that had been through a lot in his 30 years. My coordinator didn’t know much about him. I was told he was bad with women and would bite, hard. Have you seen a cockatoo’s beak? It’s like a three-pronged binder on steroids. There’s no coming back from a cockatoo bite unless you are smart enough for stiches.
The bird that I got was not an aggressive monster but a terrified bundle of fluff. He offered very few behaviors (a sign of Learned Helplessness) and spent his first few days in a cardboard box not moving from it. I wanted to break the communication barrier between us and I did that with clicker training. I do this because it teaches my animals two important things: that they can tell you “Yes!” and they can tell you “No”. When an animal learns that they have the power to say “yes” or “no” after years of coercion you become a very valuable resource for the animal.
There’s an “Ah-ha” moment during a training session that makes me come back for more. I’m not talking about me, I’m watching my animal experience it. “Oh you mean you understand what I’m saying??” would be what the animal would tell you if they could. The sheer amount of joy and excitement I witness when an animal realizes we’re communicating is uncontainable. These are the moments I live for.
When Jojo realized I would not scare or force my will upon him, he blossomed. His body language relaxed and he began to follow me around the room, not cower in a box. He also began to offer a lot of cute behaviors. Which was awesome because one sign of a happy animal is offering many different behaviors. After 3 months he knew how to willingly step up, wave hello, spin, go into his crate, and most importantly trust other people. We had broken the language barrier and had gained another happy, confident, extraordinary animal. I hope I changed your mind.