Animal Acts | Act 2: Zalophus californianus
May 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
“Tom Norman and his talking fish: hear him sing and also play the pianoforte! Witness this most extraordinary spectacle and take delight in the music of this amazing trained fish; caught alive, in nets, by HMS Galapagos off the wild and rocky shores of Southern California. Without benefit of fingers, and exhibiting the most adroit balance, this piscid performer will demonstrate his most beguiling virtuosity and musicality, through an oceanic repertoire of melodies from popular song and the classics. Only 5/6d, gentlemen will be in attendance.”
Because of their intelligence and trainability, California sea lions have been used by circuses and marine mammal parks to perform various tricks such as throwing and catching balls on their noses, running up ladders, or honking horns in a musical fashion. Trainers reward their animals with fish, which motivates them to perform. For ball balancing, trainers toss a ball at a sea lion so it may accidentally balance it or hold the ball on its nose, thereby gaining an understanding of what to do. A sea lion may go through a year of training before performing a trick for the public. However, its memory allows it to perform a trick even after three months of resting. Some organizations, such as the Humane Society of the United States and the World Society for the Protection 0f Animals, object to using sea lions and other marine mammals for entertainment, claiming the tricks are “exaggerated variations of their natural behaviors” and distract the audience from the animal’s unnatural environment.
Marine biologist Ronald J. Schusterman and his research associates have studied sea lions’ cognitive ability. They have discovered that sea lions are able to recognize relationships between stimuli based on similar functions or connections made with their peers, rather than only the stimuli’s common features. Sea lions have demonstrated the ability to understand simple syntax and commands when taught an artificial sign language. However, the sea lions rarely used the signs semantically or logically.
The California sea lion is used in military applications by the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Programme , including detecting naval mines and enemy divers. In the Persian Gulf, the animals can swim behind divers approaching a US naval ship and attach a clamp with a rope to the diver’s leg. Navy officials say the sea lions can do this in seconds, before the enemy realizes what happened.
These sketches represent the first stages of preliminary work for a series of paintings that I am creating to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the National Fairground Archive, based in The University Library, University of Sheffield. This commission will form part of the Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition which will open in September 2014 and run for four months.
This new body of work has been inspired by a number of lively discussions with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the archive. They reflect a shared interest in the changing perception of Animal Acts that has occurred in human consciousness over the last few decades. This change in consciousness towards performing animals has had broad implications throughout society, and acts (in itself) as a powerful indicator of the ambiguities that surround the relationship between the human animal and other species.