I recently shared this with two highly esteemed bear biologists. It’s not evidence-based research (it’s a Zoo Peeps blog), but was fitting for a correspondence that ensued among us, and it reminded me that I should revise this popular post.
“Ursine ADHD, the Zoo Keeper Emeritus Paradigm”
I came across a blog that I don’t want to give any more undeserved recognition to than it may already have received, but two of the issues that the anonymous blogger(s) ridiculed were Climate Change (specifically global warming trends) and ADHD, a neurobehavioral developmental disorder that manifests itself in children and adults.
There is strong empirical evidence to support these two vastly disparate, but high- profile topics among contemporary scientific research circles. In reading a post from the blog, I was reminded of a presentation I gave to a USFWS center in Alaska where I think I successfully conveyed how the range of behaviors, particularly foraging behaviors among bear species can be described by drawing a parallel to people with ADHD and people who don’t have this “gift.” Some of those with the disorder perceive it as a gift and some don’t. I should mention that although most people like to claim they have it, the greater majority of Homo sapiens on earth don’t have ADHD or at least a severe enough case that it serves as an impairment (approximately 95.6% of adults do not meet the diagnostic criteria of the simian- morphed energizer bunny). Here are some of the gifted who received a posthumous honor, a belated honor, an appreciated honor, and recognition unappreciated. I don’t have empirical evidence to support my ursine ADHD claim. It either it’s intuitive or not. I was just trying to share an analogy to better illustrate my point in speaking to this audience which included biologists and non-scientists. It’s much harder to engage an audience in discussion about frugivory or hypercarnivory in a carnivoran clade that shares the same dentition and digestion system and make it resonate with people than it is to share something that the media throws at us with good reason on a daily basis that is widely broached in conversations. The hunter vs. gatherer construct, as you will see, is something that is relevant to both human cultures and “bear cultures.”
One researcher suggests that ADHD evolved among hunters in some nomadic tribes and that the rest of human civilization was composed primarily of gathers. Again, intentionally simplistic. This is a very basic construct of the author’s much more complex paradigm and insight into early human cultures and division of labor. The point is that hunters were adapted to high energy, and high stress lifestyles where they needed an ability to hyper-focus on potential prey and typically exhibited their most responsive behaviors to circumstances which were deemed to provide great deal of external stimuli. These ‘hunters’ would have been poor candidates for assignments like basket weaving or some refined details of taxidermic work, etc (unless of course these tasks were of great interest to them).
Today, examples that might compare in intensity that rivals hunting might be an exhilarating ride on a roller coaster or an adventurous safari or even a riveting feature film, or any high intensity athletic event (particularly as an athlete, not a spectator) . Even a video game. So it shouldn’t surprise you that both athlete, Michael Jordan, and actor, Will Smith, both have ADHD, as did Albert Einstein. Jack Hanna, the iconic celebrity conservationist admits that as a child he would have been a poster boy for Ritalin, the stimulant commonly used to treat people of all ages with the condition. Jungle Jack very much demonstrates how an unyielding energy, and sense of adventure, if harnessed appropriately can not only make you the most enterprising zoo director in the world, but deserving of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a recipient of the prestigious Marlin Perkins Award (AZA). In fact, it is not unusual for ADHD to draw people to nature or to the out doors. I know zoo vets and animal trainers with ADHD. They thrive in a fast paced stimulant rich environment. All of these individuals were/are highly skilled at activities they found most exciting. They were a lucky few with ADHD where indeed it really served them as a gift. Albert Einstein couldn’t find his own house and often lost his way, but part of that was because he was lost in thought concerning complex mathematical models which were of was of great interest to him. Most would agree that he excelled in that area.
Now my point will hopefully make some sense to you. Polar bears, the hypercarnivore (impressed by well-cited blogs) and other ursids get easily bored in captivity and so we provide them with as much environmental enrichment as possible. They are easily distracted by interesting stimuli, and anything novel (essentially anything that breaks up any monotony of the day like a person climbing into their exhibit). Compare their response to how a giant panda may respond to an individual climbing into an exhibit. How long would it take for a giant panda to walk over and investigate someone crazy enough to climb into their exhibit. When feeding time comes around for a polar bear their sensory equipment (ears and noses) are on high alert, as they eagerly await that opening guillotine door. Now if you have ever watched giant panda feeding on bamboo in a zoo or in the wild, you could argue that they are perfectly content sitting in the same place for hours on end foraging on bamboo. Excitement thresholds for them for them are far different from excitement thresholds for a polar bear and this makes sense. Is a panda adapted to ambushing a ringed seal on an ice flow. Do they require an ability to hyper-focus to be able to consume bamboo. Again, I am providing a very simplistic version of my hypothetical behavioral model. My objective is not to prove that polar bears have ADHD or that pandas represent the rest of the world, but rather share an analogy with those of you who could perhaps better appreciate ADHD. My ursine model asserts that bears exemplify a taxonomic group that is unique among carnivorans (mammalian carnivores). On one extreme you have giant panda. They don’t require much if any reason to focus and although I have not trained giant panda, I have watched sessions and can see their attention potential for engaging stimuli. Most other ursids probably represent the majority of people. They don’t require too much excitement to sustain their attention. Giant panda are lucky to show up to class, polar bears show up and fall asleep and the remaining 6 species, I contend, make for pretty good note takers (more or less).
You won’t see either a polar bear or Michael Jordan signing up for a job as an accountant or a database manager. However you might find, given my proposed paradigm, that a giant panda may very well be suited for such a job. Most people probably fall somewhere in between and exhibit behavior more similar to the truly omnivorous ursids like American black bears. We could complicate things by looking at frugivory among some other bear species, but I will keep it simple. Brown bears as more opportunistic predators are probably on the cusp of a formal diagnosis.
I don’t know this for sure, but my guess is that in a zoo there are a few excellent elephant trainers with ADHD who can hyper-focus on their job, and would be less suited for work as a registrar or a behavioral researcher which might require long hours of observing animals that may not be particularly active. Likewise ADHD may be more common in some carnivore keepers and marine mammal trainers who do well in high intensity, high action roles than in other vocations in a zoo. They are suited for more high intensity experiences. Now, just because I made assertion does not mean that I think all elephant trainers have ADHD or that all registrars and behavioral researchers should be likened to giant pandas. Like anything else it’s just a theoretical construct that might or might not apply and has yet to be tested, if it’s even possible to examine. You either have ADHD or you don’t and you’re either a polar bear or a panda. You may have some tendencies that suggest you are more like one than another, but there are few polar bear-giant panda hybrids walking around.
Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus
Categories: bears · professional development · zoo
Tagged: ADHD, Albert Einstein, aquarium, carnivorous, construct, foraging behavior, gatherers, giant panda, hunters, hyper carnivore, hyper focus, Michael Jordan, omnivorous, paradigm, polar bears, Will Smith, zoo