Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Bully Behavior in Alpacas

I read an interesting article written in Psychology Today that discussed bully behavior in animals.  This article described how it was observed how a monkey was beaten and chased terribly when it ran from the more dominant members in its group.  It was heart breaking reading how this sweet, gentle monkey was ostracized and treated so meanly by others in its group and it started because it ran away when it was first challenged.  Not only did the one that was first challenging the sweeter monkey beat him up, but others followed the behavior of the dominant monkey joining in on the beating.  The sweet monkey had to be removed for its safety.  How often do we read about such things in our schools these days.  I also see similar behavior in my male alpacas occasionally although not as vicious as this article described. 

This bully behavior quite often occurs when I introduce either a new male to the group or one that I have taken out for herd health, breeding or taking out for visits and walks.  They can be gone only minutes and the other males will want to re-establish their hierarchy.  I'm quite aware of the potential for fighting when I bring back a male into their group.  I have found with my males, if I distract them immediately upon the re-introduction,  I can often avoid the chasing and fight routine.  I earlier did a spit test with one of my herdsires.  When I brought him back, he was still amped up since he was just spat at and didn't get a date so he was also frustrated.  I knew I had the recipe for a real confrontation when I brought him in.  Sometimes, I offer the male I am bringing back a goodie or a hosing down to cool him off and give him something to enjoy.  Today, I just wanted to see what would happen though.  I have been quite consistent when bringing a male in with my routine.  I bring the male in the gate and I watch his backside.  The others want to sniff his butt, however I don't allow that.  I wave off any male that wants to sniff or get interested in jumping on the male I have haltered.  He is in a vulnerable position and it is my job to watch his back (literally and figuratively).  I feel this builds a bond of trust when the male I have haltered and on a lead rope knows that I won't let anyone jump on him.  I'm protecting him.  I want the removal of the halter to be quiet and easy and it won't be if he has to be afraid of someone jumping on him and needing to protect himself.  He will want to bolt out of that halter as quickly as possible.  So it is imperative that I maintain control over all the males in the group with my body language and position and how I position the male I'm holding to keep him well protected.  Today, the re-entry went smoothly.  I waved off the ones that were interested in sniffing the butt and waited until it was calm and removed the halter and lead rope.  No one made a move to check anyone out and it was all good.  I quietly walked out of the pasture, pleased with the behavior of all the alpacas. 

For my more aggressive males, I keep the hose handy.  Sometimes the distraction of the hose will keep them from engaging with each other.  I do the same thing of getting the male I'm bringing back in a position of protecting him and placing myself so when I take the halter off, I can step into the other males' space.   When I take the halter off, I sometimes will distract the other male(s) with the lead rope twirling it in their faces and continue to back them off and away from the male I just brought in.  I want their attention on me and whatever distraction I can offer them.  If I have pellets, then I distract them with pellets.  Whatever I can find that is distracting.  Once distracted long enough, they often forget the other male was just brought in and all is peaceful and good.  Not all my techniques and tricks work but it sure is nice when they do. 

Observing this dominant, fighting, bully behavior in the male alpacas is interesting when I think about how human bullies behave.  I often wonder if it is similar parts of the brain that is engaged and if we understand how and why animals bully each other, can we get a clue of how to stop bully behavior in humans?  And, can we find some techniques of modifying and changing that behavior by trying these techniques on animals?  I have observed and witnessed how bully tendencies have dampened in kids that were with alpacas.  Attention getting bully behavior was replaced with the positive attention received by the alpacas who would only be around the kids if they stayed quiet and calm, and by us adults who rewarded those kids with how well they were getting the alpacas to trust them.  Perhaps that is the key to follow the basic principles of positive reinforcement.  Determine the behavior we want changed, create a situation to distract from that behavior that is more positive and reward that behavior and reward it a lot.   

Alpaca bully behavior being demonstrated by Kaleidoscope (rt) going after Bad to the Bone (left)

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