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Biography: Marian Breland Bailey  (1920 – 2001)

Marian Breland Bailey was a pioneer of applied animal psychology and an international figure in the history of psychology. Known as “Mouse” to her friends, she and her first husband, Keller Breland, studied under B. F. Skinner at the University of Minnesota in the late 1930s and early 1940s. So confident were they in the power of the operant technology, they left graduate school before obtaining their Ph.D.s and began Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE), a commercial venture based on the conditioning of animal behavior through positive reinforcement.

As an undergraduate, she was a student in one of Skinner’s psychology seminars. This course was the beginning of a long collaboration and friendship with Skinner. She proofed the galleys of The Behavior of Organisms (1938), and she transcribed his lectures on the psychology of literature, which eventually became Verbal Behavior (1957). In 1941, she married Keller Breland, one of Skinner’s graduate students, and she began the fall 1941 semester as a graduate student in Skinner’s lab. One afternoon in the early 1940s, the Brelands suddenly realized how powerful operant procedures could be when they witnessed Skinner shape the pecking behavior of a pigeon during the famous “Pigeon in a Pelican” project. This remarkable project was Skinner’s wartime effort to train pigeons to guide missiles for the U. S. Navy.

The Brelands began ABE in 1947 on their farm in Mound, Minnesota. Their first programs were for General Mills feed products, in which they trained General Mills employees to conduct exhibits such as the dancing chicken, the piano-playing chicken, and the chicken that played the three-shell game (Marian had a fondness for chickens all her life – she claimed they showed a lot of variability of behavior that could be selected through reinforcement, and they were humorous animals when placed in anthropomorphic settings). By 1951, the Brelands were so successful that they were able to describe their many business undertakings in an American Psychologist article, "A New Field of Applied Animal Psychology."

In 1951, the Brelands moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and in 1955 opened the IQ Zoo. A major tourist attraction for many years, the IQ Zoo housed chickens that walked tightropes, dispensed souvenirs to paying customers, danced to music from jukeboxes, and played baseball. Rabbits kissed their girlfriends, rode fire trucks, sounded sirens, and rolled wheels of fortune for lucky customers. Ducks played drums and pianos, while raccoons played basketball.

She and Keller established many firsts across the nation – they were the first to establish a whale show in 1957 and a combined whale-dolphin show in 1959. They were also the first to do a cat commercial. In the 1950s, they taught a cat to “behave appropriately” during the filming of a Puss-n-Boots cat-food commercial. Marian reported they were asked to replace another trainer after the cat refused to cooperate, had torn the studio to shreds, and “had terrorized the cameraman.” She once reported (with a slight smile), “Cats do not like to wear boots."

The Brelands were best known to psychologists for their 1961 article, “The Misbehavior of Organisms,” in the American Psychologist. The article was based on the “misbehavior” of animals they observed mostly in the state of Arkansas -- a pig taught to deposit large wooden nickels in a giant piggy bank delayed reinforcement by rooting at the coins and tossing them in the air, a chicken taught to dispense souvenirs began smashing them with its beak, and a raccoon trained to dispense capsules washed them as if they were food. Turning to the work of the ethologists Lorenz and Tinbergen, the Brelands questioned a tabula rasa approach to animal learning and spoke of instinctive drift and the natural behaviors of species.

When Keller died in 1965, Marian became president of ABE. In 1976, she married Bob Bailey, a zoologist and chemist. Bob had been director of marine mammal training for the Navy. With Bob, she began many fascinating projects on animal intelligence. The work of Marian Breland Bailey extended far beyond the confines of the IQ Zoo, and most psychologists in Arkansas are unaware that her work involved projects in many different countries. With Bob Bailey, she studied dolphin acoustics and communication and animal husbandry techniques (e.g., having dolphins cooperate with EKG, ultrasound, and other laboratory procedures), as well as teaching dolphins to assist deep-sea divers. The Baileys were able to control cats “at a distance” with radio signals, condition herring gulls to conduct 360o searches over lakes and oceans, teach pigeons to fly along a road to spot snipers, and condition ravens to take “intelligence” photographs with small cameras held in their beaks.

At its height, ABE employed over 40 persons. With her staff, Marian applied operant conditioning to 150 species, including dolphins, birds, chickens, rabbits, ducks, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, whales, and raccoons. ABE’s commercial clients included U.S. theme parks (Knott’s Berry Farm, Opryland, and Six Flags), oceanariums (Marineland of Florida and the Pacific, Marinelife, and ABC Marineland), and large companies (General Mills, Mobil Oil, and Quaker Oats). ABE animals made appearances on Wild Kingdom, CBS News, and the Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow Shows, and were described in articles for Time, Life, the Wall Street Journal, and Reader’s Digest. One of the most recognized acts produced by the Baileys was Bird Brain, the Tic-Tac-Toe playing chicken (it would play the game with any paying customer). The chicken never lost. In 1999, the noted New Yorker writer, Calvin Trillin, described this remarkable act (and Trillin’s fondness for the bird) in a charming piece, “The Chicken Vanishes.”

Marian was also a pioneer in the application of behavior modification procedures to improve the lives of persons with mental retardation. In the 1960s, she collaborated with Gerard Bensberg, training persons with mental retardation by using reinforcement therapy. In 1965, she published a landmark chapter on this process in the book Training the Mentally Retarded.

Thirty-one years after leaving the University of Minnesota, she completed her doctorate at the University of Arkansas. With Jack Marr as her chair, she completed a dissertation on the acuity of avian vision (concluding that ravens can see small objects the distance of two football fields). In 1980, Bob and Marian published a paper on their collaboration, “A View from Outside the Skinner Box” for the American Psychologist.

She then began teaching at Henderson State University (HSU), where she developed a Verbal Behavior course based on the very lectures she transcribed as a young woman. At HSU she was known for her compassion and frequent (as well as legendary) chicken-training demonstrations. In 1998 she retired at age 78 as Full Professor.

She did not remain “retired” for long – in the 1990s, Marian and Bob had already embarked on a project to interview the leaders in the field of operant and animal behavior. Traveling to many states, they interviewed over 150 professionals in the field. Bob would videotape while Marian interviewed. These videotapes make a remarkable contribution to the history of psychology, particularly behavior analysis.

Until a month before her death, Marian traveled with Bob throughout the United States, conducting workshops and training students. They hauled a trailer loaded with chickens from state to state, training students (and their professors), zoo personnel, veterinarians, pet owners, dolphin trainers, and service animal trainers. They were planning additional training seminars in Hot Springs when Marian was hospitalized.

Marian was beloved by all of us in psychology who had a chance to work with her. She was a modest person, despite her many triumphs and awards (she and Bob received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arkansas Psychological Association in 1995). She was a kind and understanding person, as well as a brilliant and persuasive advocate of behavioral technology. She seemed the very reification of “positive reinforcement.” She is survived by her husband, Bob Bailey, and children Bradley Breland, Elizabeth Breland, Bob Bailey, Jr., Lynn Bailey, Rae Barriner, Kimmy Bailey Mauldin, and Ken Bailey, as well as five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her place in the pantheon of psychology is assured.