Pinniped Piper? Former SeaWorld trainer says he can persuade sea lions away from La Jolla Cove

By Pat Sherman

A former SeaWorld employee of 18 years believes he has the solution for the stench at La Jolla Cove — conditioning the sea lion colony there to leave through behavior modification techniques.

David Butcher, a former corporate vice-president of animal behavior for the ocean-themed amusement park, says he could have the marine mammals cleared out within three months if his contract is approved by the City of San Diego.

La Jolla Shores attorney Norm Blumenthal has suggested the city hire Butcher and his firm, Precision Behavior, to work with the sea lions — though the city has not yet entertained the roughly $30,000 proposal. On behalf of the nonprofit Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement group, Blumenthal filed suit against the city late last year for failing to take bold action to reduce the business-deterring stench from bird and sea lion excrement at La Jolla Cove.

Butcher’s method involves use of operant (or instrumental) conditioning techniques — a method of learning that involves rewards and punishment for behavior.

“I’m going to change the way they look at their world in a very positive way,” he said. “I’m going to teach them that it’s more preferable for them to live, rest or sleep on other rocks than the ones that they’ve chosen. …

“The sea lions, when they get done learning what they’re going to learn, are not going to care one way or the other,” Butcher said. “They just picked up and slept where they’ve been … because it was convenient.”

Butcher said sea lions exhibit behavior very similar to dogs in that there usually is a leader. “When you get the one leader deciding that this is the direction we’re going to go, then they’re all going to go that way,” he said.

Precision Behavior works to change animal behavior by creating variability and complexity in their environment, explained Butcher, who assured that he follows guidelines established by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prevents people from harassing, disturbing, feeding or capturing sea lions or seals, but allows some methods of disturbing them to elicit their safe dispersal.

“It’s going to take some observations on our part,” Butcher said. “Behavior is fluid. When I observe how animals and people do the kinds of things that they do in their environment, then I selectively choose to change the environment in a positive way to attract their attention and reinforce (new) behavior so that they choose to (incorporate) that in their lifestyle.”

Butcher said he eschews using terms such as “training” (which he said makes people think of animals performing tricks) and “coaxing.”

“I would want them to ‘choose’ what makes them feel most comfortable in their life,” he said. “Based upon how we interface, if you will, with changes in our world, determines whether we’re going to choose to do the same thing again or not.”

The majority of Precision Behavior’s work involves educating animal care workers to modify animals’ behavior, so that the animals don’t have to be caged or anesthetized during veterinary inspections.

“We’ve actually taken our company further and started teaching management staff and corporations how to deal with their employees so that it creates a (more) productive environment for the employee to want to come to work,” said Butcher, who is writing a book about behavior and its relation to the environment (unrelated to Precision Behavior) that chronicles his longstanding relationship with an orca during his years at SeaWorld.

“It’s a love story,” Butcher said. “I fell in love with this animal. We were best of friends and he taught me a lot about what I know today. Back then it was like a living laboratory. I studied and practiced and learned, and this particular relationship with this whale is really what the book is all about. ... It will help parents.”