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Training with Reptiles

Zookeepers target train crocodiles, move Komodo dragons using bells and whistles.

01/04/2017 - In the ABQ BioPark Zoo’s reptiles department, zookeepers are training a variety of behaviors to ensure animals are getting the best care possible.

Check out this training video of Zookeeper II Katie Anderson target training with the zoo’s saltwater crocodile:

Senior Zookeeper Robert Gedraitis said they have trained the saltwater crocodile to go in and out of a holding area. Keepers cue the crocodile by opening the door to the holding area – the sound made by the door lets the crocodile know to go in or out, and he knows that food is waiting on the other side. This training is advantageous, as zoo staff can close the gate while he’s in the holding area and safely clean his habitat.

Zookeepers also target train the crocodile using a target pole. The crocodile must gently touch the tip of the target pole with his snout and hold his mouth open. Each time he does this correctly, the trainer blows a whistle to mark the positive behavior. He then gets a food reward.

A solid touch behavior can enable trainers to take blood draws from the crocodile’s tail. This would be achieved by cueing him to enter his holding room and asking him to touch when his entire body – save for a section of tail – is through the door. Then, trainers can lower the door far enough so that he can’t come back out, enabling zoo staff to safely enter his habitat.

“You potentially could safely go in and draw blood from his tail without getting eaten,” said Gedraitis.

To that end, while training, zookeepers always stay behind a wooden wall to stay safe.

Not Just Crocodiles

Senior Zookeeper Josh Davis works with Komodo dragons Sunny and Nancy. At dinner time, he must shift each of them into separate holding areas to eat. First, he cues each of them to their separate habitats and holding areas. Sunny’s cue is the ring of a cowbell while Nancy’s cue is a whistle. The idea is that each of them should line up at the appropriate door when they hear their cue. When they get inside their holding areas, the shift door is closed and they receive their meal.

Davis said he would like to work on crate training each of them in the future. This could facilitate nail trims, blood draws and full physicals.

Other reptiles also participate in training activities. For instance, the zoo's 15-foot long king cobra is conditioned to go into a shift room, which allows zookeepers to clean his habitat safely.