AvOCET 2024 Highlights: Insights, Ideas, and Inspiration for Bird Trainers

AvOCET 2024 Highlights: Insights, Ideas, and Inspiration for Bird Trainers

This year’s Avian Online Conference for Education and Training (AvOCET) was the jolt of behavior science inspiration and collaborative juice I know I really needed.

From AvOCET newcomers such as Emily Davenport of the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Alliance, Annette Pedersen of the Copenhagen Zoo, Joe Whitehead of Shavers Creek Environmental Center, Stephanie Ashley of the Peregrine Fund, Lee Stone of Parrot Life Behaviour and Training, and Gail Buhl of University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center to last year’s top-notch featured speakers Barbara Heidenreich, Sean Will and Maasa Nishimuta, Dr. Lauren McGough, and Stephanie Rosenbloom, the lineup was power-packed and the speakers really delivered.

The way each speaker, in their own way, thoughtfully supported the work of other speakers from the year’s AvOCET as well as last year’s was deeply meaningful and awe-inspiring. While the speakers themselves were selected for their work and not their topics, their topics were their own choice, and I cannot take credit for the way these concepts came together in the way that they did.

One of the biggest takeaways, and this was reflected in the post-conference surveys, is that data is really helpful. This concept was brought up by Sean and Maasa in last year’s conference and underlined in several presentations this year.

“The conference is great way to get exposed to behaviors and psychology of parrots. There is still the lack of scientific guided learning and behaviors on domesticated parrot companions.” – AvOCET Attendee

While this may feel clunky and clinical, the wisdom in this idea is that the data frees us from our own emotional baggage when we are faced with challenging decisions about the next steps in training and welfare.

Gail, Barbara, and Sean and Maasa each brought their perspectives to this through ethograms, fluency assessments, and function-based training, respectively, and my presentation on highlighting cost-benefit analyses parsed this out using a bit of math, behavior science, and behavior economics to grasp important issues.

The mission of AvOCET is to take these higher-level concepts and synthesize them into collaborative ideas that attendees can use. We aim to build a supportive space that looks at topics that nuanced ideas and how they can fit into our training programs.

“Getting to know other professionals that are dealing with the same situations I am dealing with and knowing I can contact them and that everyone is communicating is the most inspiring. My career has shifted from ambassador animals doing shows, outreach, special events and training focused around that in a zoo setting to now running my own small ambassador education collection for a governmental agency that has a different focus but we are still training, teaching and educating has been an interesting shift. I love to see the cross over of knowledge and facilitating that it is a safe space to learn and grow.” – AvOCET Attendee

This includes topics shunned by our community, often times using fear-mongering, like parent raised owls and negative reinforcement.

At a recent animal behavior conference we attended before this, one high profile trainer said that while he supports the use of negative reinforcement where applicable, his fear is that when we give trainers the tools to use it, it will be overused.

The same is true of all the tears shed over using parent raised owls as ambassadors, even to the point of practically shaming people who have few other options.

At AvOCET, we bring these ideas to the front and talk about how we can provide quality welfare and speak to when these principles and procedures are useful.

Using all-or-nothing approaches is simply not how science works, and we believe that treating our fellow peers this way is not speaking to their strengths, their limitations, and their capacity for critical thinking.

The strength of AvOCET really showed through with every one of these top-tier speakers.

It was an honor to host them, elevate their work, and be part of their audience. Looking forward to AvOCET 2025, in the words of our attendees, you won’t want to miss it!