In 1993, Steven Spielberg set the world’s imagination on fire with the debut of a little film called Jurassic Park. The idea that one day the scientific community could resurrect the behemoth dinosaurs of millions of years ago seemed so far-fetched at the time, but also, given the rapid advancement of technology, so entirely possible.
Jump ahead 22 years, and although Spielberg has since passed the torch onto Colin Trevorrow, real-world science has only gotten better; the prospect of dinosaurs populating a popular SeaWorld-esque island resort has only become more plausible.
In Jurassic World, Chris Pratt’s character, Owen, discovers that the Velociraptor pack–more likely a Deinonychus pack, but we won’t get into that quite yet–he has been training since they first left the lab are being studied by InGen for possible military applications. Of course, as Jurassic Park movies typically go, despite Owen’s protests, once the Indominous Rex escapes her pen, the Velociraptor‘s training is put to the test as they are released to hunt the massive predator down.
This got a few of us here at The Grown-Up Geek thinking: with the summer blockbuster replacing The Avengers as highest grossing film at the box office, and living in a day and age where scientists are trying to utilize Woolly Mammoth DNA to clone the dinosaur back into existence, perhaps it’s worth taking into consideration just how plausible Owen’s efforts were. Should this mammoth experiment prove successful, it may only be a matter of time before people are keeping Velociraptors as pets.
When we join the ragtag cast of Jurassic World, we are left to assume that a lot of training of these predatory dinos has occurred in the past. So, the first question to consider here is how does one professionally go about training natural predators in captivity? Were Owen’s tactics in Jurassic World realistic, or complete movie fluff?
For the answers, we turned to an expert.
“There are so many different ways of training an animal,” said Adam Felts, curator of the Columbus Zoo’s Heart of Africa region. “Clicker training,” the method exhibited by Owen initially in Jurassic World, he explained, “is [where] you’re just taking a sound and associating it with something positive, and that’s why with predators it’s a little easier because they want that food quickly. A food source species spends most of their day grazing and eating, so food’s not as big a deal [for them].”
“What’s reinforcing to one animal,” Felts continued, “may not be reinforcing to another…some animals like to be touched, elephants [and] rhinos like to be scratched. [W]e have nine East African Crown Cranes…in our [region] and one of them likes to be touched, [but] the other eight will run away from you if you try to touch them. So, really, the reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder.”
So while Owen’s initial method seems plausible, Felts believes that each animal really requires its own approach. “When you’re training an animal, what you do is you take the natural history of the animal…[that is] what they’re physically capable of doing, you..have goals in mind [and] you try to use [their] natural behaviors and things they can physically do to…get to your goal.”
The reason natural history is so integral to the overall training process is that, much like human beings, every animal is different.
“To train a wildebeest,” Felts said, “is a little more difficult than training a lion or a tiger, per se. Take the natural history of the Thompson Gazelle: it is their goal in life just to survive and they have natural instincts and…behavior that ensures that. So to train them, for me to approach [and] actually…touch a Thompson Gazelle, would take some time because their natural instinct is ‘Oh, I’m food–I’m gonna run away from this!'”
Thanks to Felts’ insight, it became clear that to ensure our future Velociraptor pack didn’t become an unruly bunch of people-eaters, we were going to need a better understanding of their natural history. For that, we looked to Matt Carrano, curator of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s Dinosauria exhibit.
“The movie versions of this animal are much larger than actual specimens of Velociraptor, which tended to be about the size of a coyote,” Carrano began. “There were feathers on at least the arms,” he added, “and…the hands should not be facing down–like dribbling a basketball–but rather facing in–as if ready to clap,” he said.
From the sounds of it, Owen’s pack doesn’t really sound like they’re Velociraptors at all. So the next question was, what do they most closely resemble in the real-world of dinosaurs?
“Deinonychus,” Carrano said. “[It’s] a bit more like the movie version, especially in the shape of the head. But it would still probably have been feathered, and is also a bit smaller than shown–perhaps about 20% smaller than the movie animals.”
Luckily, Carrano also explained, the term Velociraptor encompasses not only its namesake, but also Deinonychus, and Utahraptor–probably the closest of the three in size to Owen’s pack. So, we can safely assume the Jurassic World Velociraptor and the real-world Deinonychus share enough traits to be almost-the-same, but we still needed to know more about this other dino’s natural history.
“We know almost nothing about their behavior and natural history,” Carrano said, “aside from the fact that they seem to have been high-metabolism, predatory animals with the physical capability of good mobility and agility.”
“In terms of intelligence,” he continued, “the brain in Velociraptor and its close relatives is somewhat larger than in most other dinosaurs…It’s comparable to something like an emu or ostrich–not the smartest of birds–and I would attribute them a similar level of behavioral complexity and intelligence–nothing like what you see in crows and parrots, by comparison.”
With all that understood, it led us to our final and most important question: Did Velociraptor hunt in packs, and if so, how did the alpha establish themselves as such?
“There is no evidence for pack-hunting [in Velociraptor or Deinonychus], ” Carrano replied. “In fact pack-hunting doesn’t even evolve in mammals until comparatively recently–the last 25 million years or so. We have good evidence that some predatory dinosaurs lived, or at least traveled, in groups. But none that they hunted together…Socially, the whole concept of an ‘alpha’ doesn’t really exist in birds and crocodilians–the closest relatives of dinosaurs–and it’s hard to imagine that evolving.”
There it was, the official line in the sand between reality and pure movie fiction. Owen’s Velociraptor not only didn’t look the part, but they didn’t act it either. Our future raptor-raising plans met a swift end.
Then it occurred to us–B.D. Wong’s character in the film, Dr. Henry Wu, admits that the dinos in the park aren’t actually supposed to be indicative of their original ancestors. They are bred out of small traces of dinosaur DNA and then modern DNA (i.e., cats, fish, etc.) to provide any of the other desired traits. So, no, we wouldn’t ever get to lead a pack of real Velociraptors into battle, but if the movie cloning science and real-world science matched up at all, we may still get our pack yet!
With that in mind, we were going to need to learn how to establish ourselves as an alpha amongst our future scaly cohorts, and for that, we went back to Adam Felts.
“[W]hen you’re talking about establishing yourself as [an] alpha or beta…our training process doesn’t really try to step in and replace or become part of that kind of [relationship,]” Felts said. “I haven’t seen [Jurassic World],” he continued, “but there are dog trainers who use that alpha mentality when they’re training dogs and…when you start…with a dog or a wolf…there are body postures and all kinds of things that would help you establish yourself as alpha.”
Felts believed that the best way to ensure your position as a leader of a predator’s pack is to make sure you get involved in their socialization at as young an age as possible. “One of our goals,” he said, “when we get animals, is we start training them very young and just make it part of their daily life [that] they start seeing us as food sources…They enjoy it and you really become perceived as the leader of the pack.”
Assuming you even manage to establish yourself as the alpha in your Velociraptor pack, what happens if, much like in the movie, a larger, more threatening predator manages to replace you at a moment’s notice?
I asked Felts how likely it is for predators, once released from captivity, to forget their trainers and return to their primal lifestyle–because if the Internet and its penchant for emotional animal videos is any indication, it isn’t just elephants that never forget.
“Well I [have to] say, [it] is very plausible,” Felts said in regards to released predators remembering their trainer after years of being apart, “[but] I would not suggest doing that.”
“When you’re training animals like that, the one thing I think a lot of people don’t understand is you’re never eliminating their natural instincts. You’re never eliminating that, [and]…something could trigger that animal that it’ll resort back to [its] natural instincts. I just wouldn’t [trust] it because you just don’t know and there’s many many instances where people have raised lions and tigers and things like that and then they get injured by those animals they raised.”
So let’s take a minute here and recap:
First, we now know for a fact that Owen’s dinosaurs were bred at the genetic level for their purpose–almost entirely ignoring how different these modern dinosaurs would be from the original ancestors. Then, for Owen to have been as successful as he was with Charlie, Delta, and Blue, he clearly must have followed a specific training regimen:
Having received them at a young age, he quickly established himself as a key food source, and understanding their natural history, to one modified degree or another, he utilized clicker training to take the raptor’s lab-bred abilities and turn them to his advantage. It clearly isn’t implausible that he was, in fact, the perceived alpha of the pack, and even after the Indominous Rex subverted that relationship, that these particular Velociraptor could remember back, and choose to follow him again.
Now despite how far-fetched that all clearly is–yes, even we know we clearly wont be hunting with Velociraptors anytime soon (or ever, for that matter)–we arrived at one final question: forgetting about the Velociraptor, would it at least be possible today to take a predatory animal raised in captivity–lions for example–and use them like Owen used the Velociraptor pack to hunt down a dangerous escaped predator within a zoo environment?
“I don’t think so,” said Felts, laughing. Carrano chimed in, suggesting we’d be better off, “trying to get a group of emus to do something together on command. Or better yet, cassowaries, just to make sure you’re getting the danger aspect.”
Felts then continued, saying, “With what you’re talking about, like sending a pride of lions out to go take care of a rogue animal, I don’t think you’d wanna trust that. [I’ve] had some fairly wonderful experiences here at the zoo and developed some really cool…mutual relationships with these animals…[but] they were very wild and things could go wrong really fast.”
Oh Adam, if you only knew.