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Even Whales Can Be Superstitious

ShamuBookI love to go thrifting.

But unlike certain famous television folks with the same hobby, I’m not out to find a real Monet on sale for $12 (mostly because I probably wouldn’t recognize it) or a genuine dinosaur tooth from the Jurassic era…although that would be pretty cool.

Nope. Mostly I’m on the lookout for a pair of last-decade’s jeans that might actually fit my this-year’s booty, or perhaps a 50-cent book I am eager to read that inexplicably isn’t available through our local library system.

Last month I made just such a find when I wandered through a thrift store in my new neighborhood and a tiny black-and-white graphic of a whale caught my eye. “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage,” the title read.

I gathered from the graphic that the Shamu in question was none other than the famous killer whale (actually several performing killer whales who have been given that same name over the decades).

Since I make it a habit to learn as much as I can about life, love and at least partnership (legal or otherwise), and I’ve never had a killer whale as a mentor before, I decided I had to have it.

I coughed up the 50 cents and sped home to begin learning. 

On the way home, it suddenly dawned on me that I recognized the author – Amy Sutherland. I had actually just finished another great book of hers a few months back called “Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life Lessons at the World’s Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers.”

As I read the opening pages of “Shamu,” I realized it is kind of like the follow up to “Kicked.” Only this time, Sutherland is applying what she learned at the exotic animal school to training her own species….most notably, her husband.

Anyway, about halfway through reading “Shamu,” I came across a small section entitled “Superstitious Behavior.” Sutherland writes:

When trainers accidentally teach an animal something, they call it a superstitious behavior.

The example she gives is one of teaching a tiger to sit. If the trainer isn’t precise with his commands and rewards, the tiger might instead assume the desired behavior is a crouch or a growl.

Another example Sutherland offers relates to behavioral cues (what the trainer does to let the animal know which behavior to do and when to do it). For instance, if a trainer makes a hand signal and also cocks her head without realizing it, the animal may refuse to do the behavior in the future unless both signals are given, even if the trainer doesn’t remember the head-cocking part.

In this case, both trainer and animal might become understandably frustrated at their sudden inability to communicate.

According to Sutherland, most human animals are every bit as observant and quick when it comes to learning superstitious behaviors as their non-human counterparts.

In support of her theory, I offer a few of mine:

  • Refusing to take an umbrella just to “make sure” it won’t rain.
  • Knocking on wood while talking about stuff I don’t want to happen.
  • Donating a shirt because the last time I wore it I had a really bad day.

There are many more where these came from.

Sutherland brings up the topic of superstitious behaviors to highlight two key points:

  • Everyone has some superstitious behaviors…even killer whales.
  • Most but not all superstitious behaviors are harmless.

While I can’t comment on her first point, I have more than two decades of proof to support the truth of her second point.

For so many years, I thought changing my body shape and weight could help me avoid unhappiness and cultivate success. I had somehow, somewhere picked up the superstitious belief that there was a link between how I looked, how happy I felt, and how much I was going to get of what I wanted in life.

So my not-harmless superstitious belief (er) shaped up to look like this:

Become slimmer = become happier = become more successful.

I tried to make this formula work for years and years and years.

I can actually recall times when I would be standing in front of a full-length mirror examining my physical form, witnessing how the required limbs were finally whittled down to the required widths, and then realizing with disappointment that I still felt so very lonely, unhappy, and completely unsuccessful.

So so so many times, I figured I’d just done something in the formula wrong, and I’d back the whole train up and start down the same road again. By this I mean that I would literally plump up and whittle down and then re-check my levels of happiness/success, each time expecting my superstitious belief to finally deliver the promised results.

It never once happened. Finally I worked up the courage to kick the superstitious belief itself to the curb and try something new instead. My mentor called the new thing “recovery.”

Thankfully, it worked.

Today’s Takeaway: Do you have any superstitious beliefs? Do you know how you got them and/or why you believe in them? Do you see the animals around you (non-human or human) exhibiting any superstitious beliefs on a regular basis? How do you think they got those beliefs? Do you think superstitious beliefs are mostly harmless, or can they become dangerous sometimes?

Even Whales Can Be Superstitious

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2016). Even Whales Can Be Superstitious. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Sep 2016
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