Training Zoo Animals
Popular Training Requests
Station: The animal is asked to come to the keeper.
Shift: The animal is asked to move from one location to another.
Scale: The animal is asked to get on a scale.
Open: The animal is asked to open its mouth.
Present: An animal is asked to present a specific body part for examination.
01/04/2017 - It may be daunting to think about convincing a gorilla or a jaguar to willingly participate in medical procedures, but ABQ BioPark zookeepers have it down to a science.
Feisty the harbor seal can present his belly for inspection. Jack the gorilla can present his fingers through his door to receive a nail clipping. Giraffes voluntarily enter a chute system that helps keepers obtain their weight. And animals zoo-wide are participating in similar tasks.
But they didn’t get there overnight. Through patience, consistency and bond building, zookeepers shape animals’ natural behaviors through a process called operant conditioning (or training). The overall goal is to capture natural behaviors to create a proactive healthcare program for each animal, said Tammy Schmidt, ABQ BioPark curator of mammals.
Here’s how it works—an animal offers a behavior that it normally would, such as a hippo opening its mouth wide for a big yawn. Zookeepers work closely with the animal to shape this into a behavior that would be beneficial for proactive health care like checking teeth and gums. Trainers use both hand and verbal cues. When the animal offers the desired behavior, zookeepers mark it with a whistle blow, a click from a clicker training device or a vocal affirmation like “good boy.”
“You can usually see the light bulb going off in an animal’s eyes,” said Schmidt.
Trainers reinforce the desired behavior with a reward or “jackpot.” For many animals, this means treats like apple bits or hay, but it could also be anything the animal prefers. Schmidt said jaguars, rhinos and elephants all enjoy receiving hose play. Other animals might enjoy receiving a new form of enrichment or moving into a preferred bedroom.
"We are using the scientific method of request and reward through the bond we’ve created with these animals,” Schmidt said.
Zookeepers never pressure animals to offer a behavior. If they are uninterested during a training session, staff will disengage and try again later.
“It’s all voluntary, it’s low stress and it’s capturing natural behaviors,” said Schmidt. “We don’t want this to be mandatory. We want this to be a positive experience.”
Samson, a male Asian elephant, raising his trunk for inspection. Photo: ABQ BioPark.
At first, each animal has a primary trainer. Learned behaviors can be transferred to another trainer later, but care must be taken to replicate the primary trainer’s technique. Even small differences like a misplaced hand can hinder an animal’s progress. That's why the zoo sometimes records training sessions to later view for inconsistencies among trainers.
“Ultimately, our goal is to provide each keeper the ability to work with an animal and ask for the same behaviors in the same way," said Schmidt.
Both animal and staff safety is of utmost importance, so the majority of training is done with some sort of a barrier between animal and trainer—this could be a gate or a bedroom door. Favorite diet items may also be given with some precaution. For example, zookeepers use tongs to feed the jaguars to create an extension of their hand.
A few trainers are able to work one on one with an animal without protective barriers. The most notable example of this is the training done with seals and sea lions. Schmidt noted, however, this type of training is only done after careful safety consideration from zoo supervisors. Zookeepers never enter an enclosure alone with an animal.
Schmidt said that operant conditioning makes veterinary procedures easier for animals and humans alike.
“Keepers have evolved into great trainers that have formed bonds of trust that let animals know it’s OK and they’re going to get through it together,” she said.
Story: Tina Deines
The ABQ BioPark has several Amazon wish lists that contain some training products like target sticks, training whistles, treat training pouch bags, training clickers and more. You can make a purchase to benefit the ABQ BioPark’s operant conditioning programs.