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Love Lessons from a Killer Whale

COM lecturer’s book reveals relationship clues from the wild kingdom


"The hard part was retraining myself to watch for what people — especially my husband — did that I liked, and then making sure to reward it," says COM's Amy Sutherland. Photo by Jay York, jayyork.biz

Amy Sutherland didn’t begin treating her husband like a performingseal out of the blue — she did years of serious research first.Sutherland, a College of Communication journalism lecturer, was workingon a book about animal trainers when she found herself applying theirtechniques, such as positive reinforcement for good behaviors andnonreactions to bad ones, to her everyday interactions at home.

A funny column about the results — titled "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage" — appeared in the New York Times in the summer of 2006. Six months later, it was the most viewed and most e-mailed article of the year. Her book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers (Random House), was published in February 2008 — last month, the film rights were purchased by Summit Entertainment. Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky, the writing team behind Sex and the City, are currently adapting the book for a screenplay.

Sutherland recently spoke with BU Today.

BU Today: Your book covers a range of animal-training behaviors. Which were easy to adopt at home?
Sutherland: Most of these principles are simple inconcept but devilishly hard to apply. Once progressive animal trainingshowed me why nagging doesn’t work, I gave it up, and that wassurprisingly easy. Until I stopped, I didn’t realize how much mynagging dragged me down. The hard part was retraining myself to watchfor what people — especially my husband — did that I liked, and then makingsure to reward it, to be appreciative. Like most humans, I’d beenbrought up to focus on what bothered me in other people and heapattention on that.

What’s the best technique you learned?
Trainers say you get what youreinforce, which was a tremendous eye-opener for me. I had to look atmy own behavior and consider how I might be fueling in someone elsebehavior I didn’t want or didn’t like. When I would respond to myhusband’s ire over losing his keys by helping him look or suggestingways not to lose his keys, I was unwittingly reinforcing his pique.Recently, he got in the habit of asking me what the weather forecastis, and for some reason, this got on my nerves. Then I realized he wasasking me because I always answered. If I didn’t want to be hispersonal weather.com, then I should stop acting like it.

You were so open with your husband about the techniques that he started using them on you. Are you still retraining each other?
Once you cross over, there’s no goingback. It’s really just a much easier, more productive way of relatingto each other. There’s a lot less nagging and bossing in our householdand a lot more thinking like dolphin trainers.

This book idea came from a yearspent at Moorpark College’s Exotic Animal Training and ManagementProgram. What’s the most important thing you learned?
There are universal principles ofbehavior that cut across species, from African crested cranes to thehighest of primates. If a pigeon pecks a piano key and gets a seed, thepigeon is likely to play on. If a human tickles the ivories and gets astanding ovation, the same. If a pigeon gets a shock when it pecks thekey, end of concert career. If a human gets booed, the same. It showedme that we humans, who so often think of ourselves as an invasivespecies, are just another strand in the web of life. I found thatheartening.

Did you and your husband find yourselves identifying with any particular species?
It was a happy day for me whenever Igot to trail along with the students as they walked the wolf, Legend,at the teaching zoo. That’s probably partly the social animal in mebeing drawn to other social animals. My husband feels the same way. Healso has a thing for lemurs — like them, he is lean and graceful. But hedoesn’t have their big eyes, nor can he jump from tree limb to treelimb.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.


One Comment on Love Lessons from a Killer Whale

  • shelley solworth on 11.28.2008 at 1:47 pm

    Animals and the people who train them

    Enjoyed the excerpt, there is much we can learn and apply to our everyday ineractions with those closest to us and loved ones.Great food for thought.

    Shelley Solworth
    Cape Cod

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