Shamu-mania

Why do New York Times readers thirst for relationship advice from animals?


Page Rockwell
July 8, 2006 12:00AM (UTC)

I've been trying to focus on today's news, but I keep getting distracted. Particularly by the New York Times. What is with that damn Shamu article?

As you may have noticed, the June 25 "Modern Love" column, Amy Sutherland's "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," is enjoying an unusually long stay on the Times' most e-mailed list. The piece, which began as an offshoot of Sutherland's recently published book on exotic-animal training, topped the list for about a week after it first ran, then dropped down around the seventh slot, and has since rebounded back to the top. It's a fun read -- Sutherland describes how animal training techniques like positive reinforcement have improved her relationship with her husband, variously comparing him to an elephant, a baboon and a sea lion -- so its appeal isn't totally mysterious. But it's rare for any Times story to spend this long in the sun. Why Shamu?

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It's possible that readers are sending it around to express their outrage or skepticism. Comparing husbands with animals is bound to ruffle some feathers, and sure enough, conservative blogger Mark Nicodemo rejoiced, "Thank God I'm not married to Amy Sutherland. She would try to train me like a friggin' dolphin. [Emphasis on try.]" San Francisco Bay Area blogger Rebecca Guyon also objected, wondering, "Is this what our relationships turn into 10 years down the line? ... The idea of people getting divorced is almost less depressing than the idea of people trying to figure out some way, any way, even using animal training skills, to be able to stand each other."

Maureen Dowd, on the other hand, came out in favor of the zoological approach in her Wednesday column [subscription required], suggesting that men also study animal behavior to learn how to train their women. Dowd quoted anthropologist Helen Fisher, who argues that women are even easier to train than men, because "women are better at reading the emotions in your voice, better at seeing things in their peripheral vision, better at seeing in the dark." As for lady-training tips, Fisher suggests, "If I were a man rewarding a woman, I'd do it in the format women find intimate, which is face to face. I'd go straight up to her, while she was doing the dishes, I'd turn her around face to face, and I'd say: 'Thanks so much for being on time last night. It meant a lot to me.'"

There's certainly potential for controversy here, but I'm still surprised at the splash "Shamu" has made. Haven't we seen Sutherland's suggestions before, in other guises? Her positive-reinforcement principle evokes old adages, particularly "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" and the wifely mantra "Expect little, forgive much." Similarly, when Sutherland writes, "thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively," I'm reminded of the popular speciesist philosophy of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." (Though to be fair, Sutherland is highlighting equal-opportunity training strategies, not a throwback approach to gender differences.)

I called Sutherland and asked whether her tips struck her as retro. "You can look at it that way," she said, "but if nagging's not getting you anywhere, it might make sense to try something else. I'd be glad to consider an actual nagging case that gets you what you wanted, but in my case it never got me what I wanted. In the animal kingdom it becomes really clear that positive reinforcement gets results."

I wondered whether there's something demeaning about training your partner as you would a pet. Sutherland answered, "To me it was neither demeaning nor complimentary; it was logical. A lot of trainers use these techniques in their relationships, with their spouses and children."

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She said she's been surprised by the article's success: "I thought people would get a kick out of it, because it provides actual information they can use. But honestly I've been floored by the epic response it created. It's kind of funny -- who knew that people want marital advice mixed in with an animal-behavior story?"

On the other hand, she reflected, maybe it isn't so surprising. "It hit on two universals. People love animals, and everyone wants marital advice." And the training approach may especially appeal, she says, because everyone wants easy marital advice: "People don't want to go to a counselor for every single thing, and not every little thing warrants going to a counselor," she said. "People are hungry for really simple techniques." I don't know what that says about us -- that we're a bunch of slackers? that a lot of people are married to jerks? -- but if the piece's popularity is any indication, she's probably right.


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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