Perhaps the best way to learn about this interesting career is to hear from an experienced professional. Read on to learn more about one scholar’s experiences and background.
Mary Lee Nitschke—Animal Behaviorist
Mary Lee Nitschke has a Ph.D. in comparative developmental psychobiology from Michigan State University and more than thirty years of experience in this exciting field. She feels that the most important training for an animal behaviorist is hands-on experience, and the more time spent observing animals and learning to interact with them, the better. In addition, she recommends formal education that teaches you to understand, evaluate, and think like a scientist.
In her opinion, the best approach is to take a lot of experimental courses in psychology or in other fields. Some anthropology courses are good preparation for this kind of work, and there are disciplines of animal behavior in both psychology and zoology. A good psychology background is important because it will expose you to experimental psychology and statistics.
Dr.Nitschke uses applied statistics on a daily basis. “I’ll give you an example,” she says.“Every time a client comes in to me and says ‘this is happening,’ in my mind I run that through a statistical analysis, and I say, given that situation, what is the probability this is happening for these reasons. That’s where my training and my knowledge of animal behavior allows me to put that in a framework instantly.”
Getting Started. Dr. Nitschke grew up on the range in Texas, where her primary entertainment and stimulation came from observing animals. She spent a great deal of time with animals, particularly showing and training horses. When she started college, she was attracted to both engineering and psychology because she loved both machines and animal behavior.
She was very interested in the realization that her theoretical learning in psychology seemed to be wasted if it wasn’t applied. She found that her professors knew very little about training and were teaching learning theory. On the other hand, trainers knew nothing about learning theory. She believed that both of these areas could be enriched by the other, and she kept bouncing back and forth between the world of training and the world of academics. When she got to graduate school and discovered that she could actually study this as an academic subject, she was fascinated with putting the two together.
Most of her research in graduate school was aimed at the interspecific communication of distress. For her dissertation, she conducted research with bobwhite quail, jackrabbits, coyotes, blue jays, and human babies, looking for whether there was some universality of understanding of the distress call between species.
After graduation, Dr. Nitschke taught at Michigan State University. Her subjects included operant behavior and pet communication patterns in the veterinary school. She also taught developmental psychobiology with a specialization in toxicology, again looking across species at the common elements in how toxins affect behavior in various species.
“Before I even went to college, I trained horses,” she says. “What I later realized is that I trained every animal I came into contact with—I just didn’t realize that’s what it was called.
“While I was an undergraduate, one of the things that fueled my interest in applied psychology was that I started out working in a kennel that bred and trained collies. It was really one of the golden fortunes of my life that the couple I worked for had incredible integrity and ethics about breeding. They bred for the love of the dog and could not be bought by local fashions and current fads. They knew exactly what they were breeding for—solid temperaments. I learned an incredible amount from them. I started there just cleaning dog runs, and by the time I left I was handling the line of collies professionally.”
The Work. Dr. Nitschke wears many hats. She is a full-time, tenured professor in the psychology department at Linfield College in Portland, Oregon. Her courses range from Applied Animal Behavior and Human Animal Relationships to People Pet Partnerships in Health Care. She is also owner of Animal School Incorporated (in Beaverton, Oregon) and, through private consultations and classes, provides clients with help in solving pet behavior problems.
Here is an example of the kinds of problems she sees.“Recently, a fellow came in with a six-year-old bulldog mix. It looked an awful lot like a pit bull—big dog, ninety pounds, and he has bitten about seven people. I went through each bite. Some of these bites are almost to be expected because they resulted from inappropriate behavior on the part of the owner. In one instance, the owner sent a plumber carrying a pipe into the dog’s territory without announcing him.Well, he already knew the dog was territorial and didn’t usually admit strangers. I don’t count that bite. That was to be expected. In another instance, a teenage boy had been playing with the dog, then turned very abruptly and jumped on his bike, and the dog went for him. Given this particular dog, the probability of that happening is pretty high, and, when you
add all those bites up, the probability that the dog is going to bite again is also very high. Putting the dog to sleep is one of the major options I counseled him about, but you can’t make that decision for the client. My job in that situation is to say, here are the likely scenarios—what will happen if you do nothing or if you do this, that, or the other.”
What the owner wanted was a training program that would guarantee that the dog wouldn’t bite anyone again, but Dr. Nitschke explains that there is no such program.Most of the time you’re working with the person, not the animal, and that’s why you must have some grounding in counseling to do this work.
Dr.Nitschke is also a consultant to the Oregon Zoo in Portland. She works with the zoo’s full-time animal behaviorist, running training seminars for zookeepers on how to interact with and handle animals.
She also gives talks on wolf-dog crosses because the zoo gets many questions about them. Since the zoo has wolves, people bring their concerns about their own pets, and she helps to answer the questions.Many people living in the Northwest own wolves as pets, which can be a dangerous situation. To an animal behaviorist such as Dr. Nitschke, the biggest problem is the quality of life for the animal. If it’s high percentage wolf, it’s likely to be terrified of people and unpredictable. There is no way of knowing when the wolf part is going to be operative and when the dog part is. These wolf-dog crosses have a reputation very similar to pit bulls and rottweilers. Although it’s not the same problem, it looks the same because they maul children frequently.
Dr. Nitschke also does training with the zookeepers, teaching them to manage animals in the zoo environment and to understand and use operant behavior and clicker training, in which the animal is trained to click a bar that delivers food as a reward. One of her colleagues was working with an ape that was diabetic and needed to have a blood sample drawn every day. Through clicker training, she taught the chimp to put its arm in a sleeve outside the cage and grasp a bar so that the blood sample could be taken quickly and efficiently without endangering anyone. The reward was food, and the animal was fine about it.
This colleague also taught an elephant to present its feet for cleaning through a fence. This was an aggressive male elephant that would not allow anyone to enter its territory for cleaning. Through operant conditioning, it was taught to hold its feet up to a little panel where they could be cleaned.
In addition, Dr. Nitschke does a lot of public speaking and is also a consultant for the invisible fencing industry. She also does occasional training for animal-control workers, teaching them how to handle animals and how to approach an animal when they have to go onto a property, which is extremely dangerous.