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Keller Breland (1915–1965)

Keller Breland was born and raised in Mississippi, attended Louisiana State University as an undergraduate, and began working in B. F. Skinner’s psychology laboratory at the University of Minnesota in the late 1930s. There he met and worked with Marian Kruse, an undergraduate majoring in psychology and ancient Greek. Together, Keller and Marian helped Skinner develop many key concepts and demonstrations in operant psychology, which is the study of behavior that is influenced by rewards. The Brelands were married in 1941, the same year that the U.S. entered World War II. It was also in 1941 that Skinner received funding from General Mills, Inc., to set up the Project Pigeon program, a “top-secret” effort to teach pigeons to guide bombs dropped from airplanes.

This project was conducted at the top of a grain elevator at the General Mills plant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was while working on Project Pigeon that the Brelands saw Skinner demonstrate the power of shaping, in which he used an automatic feeder to shape the behavior of a pigeon. In shaping, an animal's behavior is reinforced or rewarded for ever-closer approximations to the desired final behavior. Thus, if you wanted to reinforce a pigeon's pecking at a small dot on a tabletop, you would first reinforce movement toward the general vicinity of the dot, and then reinforce ever-closer movement, and so on. Eventually, you would only reinforce pecking directly on the dot.

It was experiences like these that led the Brelands to appreciate the great power of positive reinforcement as well as the specific procedures (like shaping) and the technology (e.g., the automatic feeder) that made operant psychology so workable. With great optimism, Keller and Marian bought a small farm in nearby Mound, Minnesota, to begin the business that eventually became Animal Behavior Enterprises.

In 1946, Keller and Marian developed a “chicken show” for the farm-feed division of General Mills, Larro Feed. For many years, these shows were great hits at local feed stores throughout the United States – the Larro salesman would provide the reinforcement for chickens that danced, found hidden objects, laid wooden eggs, and played the piano. The shows were the first commercial applications of the new behavioral technology called operant conditioning. The Brelands were probably the first to teach laypersons (i.e., the Larro salesmen) to use the new technology of operant conditioning. The salesmen were responsible for reinforcing the desired behaviors. The trained chickens, as well as other animals like rabbits, ducks, and pigs, performed their acts throughout the United States. The Brelands taught these salesman using detailed training manuals and hands-on workshops. This method of training continued into the 1950s when they taught dolphin-trainers how to teach and reinforce dolphin behavior. In the 1960s, the Brelands taught institutional staff how to use positive reinforcement to teach everyday-skills to persons with mental retardation.

With their growing business and a growing family, the Brelands moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1951. It was in the early 1950s that the Brelands began the first of many coin-operated and fully automatic animal shows. In these exhibits, a customer would walk up to a small air-conditioned booth containing an animal. The customer would deposit a coin, and that animal would do all sorts of amazing tricks:

Chickens would dance.

Ducks would play the guitar.

Chickens would play baseball.

        Rabbits would play the piano.

Over the years, the Brelands developed hundreds of exhibits like these, all involving different themes and behaviors. It was also in the 1950s that Keller and Marian began to develop television commercials incorporating trained animals. Once again, they were pioneers in this area too. One entertaining example is Buck the Bunny, a thrifty rabbit who saves his money in a bank:

          Buck Bunny video

To handle a growing public interest in these trained animal acts, Keller opened the IQ Zoo in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1955. At the same time, the Brelands continued to send out units to fairs, theme parks, and trade shows. They also generated contracts with businesses to do research (e.g., with several large companies to study taste-preferences in animals). It was in the mid 1950s that Keller was contacted by Marine Studios of Florida to develop trained dolphin and bird shows (e.g., with macaws, cockatoos, and parrots). Here, too, Keller left his handprint -- most of the routines in today’s dolphin and bird shows contain routines that were the brainchild of the brilliant Keller Breland.

Ever the showman (P. T. Barnum comes to mind when one thinks of Keller Breland), Keller was able to get national publicity in important magazines like Time, Life, Boys’ Life, Reader’s Digest, and Better Homes and Gardens. In 1961, Keller and Marian published the classic psychology article, The Misbehavior of Organisms in the American Psychologist.

In the early 1960s, the U.S. Navy Marine-Mammal program began operation at Point Mugu, California. The Brelands were invited to train the staff working with marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions. Not surprisingly, the Brelands first taught the staff all about animal training by having the staff work with chickens. At this time, Keller’s most enthusiastic student was the director of training at point Mugu, Robert (Bob) Bailey. Later, Keller helped the staff at Point Mugu determine appropriate tasks and reinforcement contingencies for the marine animals in a variety of intriguing situations.

Keller was a man overflowing with ideas and enthusiasm. Tragically, he died in 1965 from heart disease. His wife Marian carried on the tradition for the next 36 years. In 1966, a year after Keller’s death, the textbook, Animal Behavior, by Keller and Marian Breland, was published by Macmillan. Marian married Bob Bailey in 1976.

The work of Keller, Marian, and Bob Bailey is well described in the video "Patient like the Chipmunks."