On a really broad spectrum, training is using the animal’s behavior, whether it’s natural or a little unnatural, and kind of manipulating it to our benefit.
Most of the training that’s done in zoological parks like ours is for what’s called behavioral husbandry, so using their behaviors to take care of them better.
Can you tell us about training for blood draws?
One of the most common things that we can teach a large animal to do is give us blood. Being able to take that blood on a voluntary basis, without the influence of knock-down drugs or stress or anxiety is really going to give us the best balance and the best read of what’s going on. A lot of times with exotic animals there’s not a lot of baseline data or normals. So what is the normal creatinine level that you’re supposed to find in tiger blood? That’s not something that’s really commonly found. Even if we do have common numbers, it’s kind of a range, so it helps to know an individual’s normal. So if we can get a blood draw from an animal when they’re healthy, we can then use those numbers if they’re not feeling well or if we notice something’s a little different and compare them to see what’s changed and how we can help them. The tail is the easiest place to get that voluntary blood draw from because it’s the farthest thing from all the scary stuff. For most animals and most large cats, there’s also a handy-dandy big vein that runs along the underside of their tail. So it’s pretty easy to train them to line up against the fence where we can safely access it and then take a little bit.
You said it’s pretty easy to get them to back up against the fence to present their tail to you. What materials or techniques do you use to get them to that point?
Zookeepers are known for being super-crafty. A lot of times our enclosures or environments are not necessarily built to be keeper- or animal-friendly; they’re more built for the public. So we’ve had to figure out ways to just use what’s in there to create what we need. My favorite thing to use is exhibit furniture, so things like their platforms or logs or something natural that doesn’t really stand out or look strange to create what’s called a chute. If anybody has any hoof-stock experience, that’s where you’ll more commonly hear about chutes being used for veterinary procedures. It’s basically taking them from a nice big wide space down into thinner and thinner areas so that they don’t really have a lot of area to move away from. And then within that chute, they’re trained and are nice and comfortable in there, so that’s where we can start to approximate tail-touches, getting poked with a syringe, and even sometimes if your animal is super-motivated with a really good trainer, we can eventually phase out that chute, and then it becomes based on the cue or the signal that we tell them, “Hey, it’s time to go do a little bit of work real quick.” But most of the time they don’t care because there’s always food involved.
Do you think that responsiveness to training is a measure of intelligence in an animal?
I’m going to say no, only because I’ve trained a really broad spectrum of species. I’ve trained animals that would be considered intelligent and I’ve trained animals that have been considered not intelligent. It’s been too varied for me to say whether their involvement would reflect intelligence. Some animals like squirrel monkeys that are really smart and are known for problem-solving can be really hard to train because they’re smarter than you. And then other animals that are considered maybe less bright, even, say, a bug—a tarantula is not something that would come to mind as intelligent, but I was able to station-train a tarantula because I didn’t want to touch it, so it would go where I needed it to go without doing anything that made me uncomfortable. It’s more about the trainer being able to draw the lines as clearly as possible for the species they’re working with, so I don’t think the two are necessarily correlated.
In your opinion, which animals here are the easiest to train and which are the hardest?
All of these animals are hard to train because they’ve been getting free food their whole life! None of them have really had to work. So far, our tiger Wic has proven to be the most flexible with training. He’s the most motivated. The harder ones to train are definitely the lions. It has to be at the right time of day, and there has to be the right reinforcement, and they’re a little more stubborn. Just about everybody on the smaller side of the park has responded really well to training. But again, crafty keepers: Instead of making it that training sessions have to be this very unique, identified thing that happens at a different time, we’re learning how to integrate it into our day-to-day, so making it part of an animal’s every day, they don’t even realize they’re being trained.
Can you give some examples of recent training that you’ve done?
One of our focuses lately has been with Luga, our Eurasian Lynx; he’s one of our older lynxes of our three. He’s going to be due for his rabies and another vaccine soon, and instead of making it anything stressful, we wanted to train him for it. So we used a windblock, a piece of furniture in his enclosure, and brought it up close to the fence, and within about five days, he’s already letting us poke his hip pretty hard. We don’t just jump in to using a syringe or poking holes in animals. We start out with what’s called approximations and get them used to having that discomfort as frequently as we can. Right now we’re using what’s called a blunted needle, where we take a syringe with a needle and we cut the little end off and file it down. He’s already lining up in that chute by choice, and he takes his food nice and easy off of the tongs. We say the word “touch”—which we had to teach him because he doesn’t know what that means; I could’ve used the word “banana” and he would’ve figured it out if I had done it repeatedly, but for us because it’s easy, we say “touch”—and we poke him with a little syringe. As while he’s eating or in between snacks, as long as he doesn’t react negatively, we bridge (which is another form of training communication) and reinforce, and he’s doing awesome.
How does training help you monitor animals’ health?
It helps with everything, not just the result of getting a blood draw and being able to test the blood, but with seeing their involvement and engagement at each session. So if I know an animal like Wic is really motivated and excited for training and he comes over no matter what time of day it is and doesn’t care what I’m trying to feed as a reinforcer, if one day I realize he is maybe not quite as rambunctious or energetic about it, that is going to tell me something about his behavior. Basically everything a keeper does with an animal every day can give a sign or signal of something that’s going on inside, and it’s just up to the keeper to know what to look for.
For enclosures that have more than one animal resident, do the other animals who you’re not focusing on training at that moment sometimes interfere or need to be separated during training?
We do have a lot of groups here, and we have to be very creative with making sure nobody gets jealous. We don’t want to create any food aggression issues. Thankfully we have the ability in a lot of our enclosures to shift animals away from one another, and what we’ve done with some of those instances is we shift someone to an area where we’ve put something else fun and occupying, like an enrichment or a novel food item or something with some scent on it, something to draw their attention off of whatever else is going on.
This can certainly interfere with the lion training because they are such a close-knit social group; each of our pairings and each of our prides is always interested in what the other one is doing. So it’s about making sure that the environment is set up for success, making sure that whoever we are focused on working with that day knows that we’re working with them and their friend is OK and everything’s fine. It can go both ways: If we make an enrichment for the other animal a little too fun, they want to go see what their buddy has, rather than dealing with their training.
Could you give an example of what kind of training you might do with the dingoes?
Thankfully one of our volunteers has put in a ton of time with the dingoes and their training to make it so that they are very tractable, which means we can do a lot of stuff with them, and to them, and they don’t really get impacted by it; they’re very socialized in that way. Things that we’re working on are opening their mouths to be able to check their teeth, checking their ears and making sure they stay nice and clean, checking their general body condition—that is a great way to check their health as well. As we’ve told our community many times, the majority of our animals are geriatric, so we want to make sure that a geriatric’s body condition is remaining nice and full by getting our hands on him and checking ribs and spine, as well as doing those other activities like injection training, blood draws, checking their feet—again, anything that you might have seen your vet do to your cat or dog at home are things we have to work on as well.
Does it matter how often you train?
Training comes down to consistency. The more consistent you are in working with the animal, the easier the training is going to be.
For you personally, what future species would you like to have here?
I want hyenas, all day. Especially if we’re talking about from a trainer’s perspective only. Hyenas are amazing animals to work with and to train. I’ve seen some in other zoological facilities that allow a blood draw—like I was saying before, from other animals you have to get it from their tail—and they do really well getting it right from their jugular. So think about a hyena and all this dangerous stuff that’s right up around the head, and they’ll choose to just come right up to the fence and give it to you, and I think that’s awesome. Any animal that’s going to provide a challenge is something I like with training, somebody that makes me work for it. For others, it’s hard to say because the list of animals who are already here is really long and really fun. But hyenas would be my first answer.
We touched on this a few months ago when we were talking about enrichment and you mentioned that training was a form of enrichment. Can you expand on that a little?
When we’re talking about enriching an animal’s environment or day-to-day life, it just means bringing something in that’s a little bit different or that’s a natural stimulus. Out in the wild, animals have to think about how they’re going to get their food. They have to make decisions about what they’re going to try to hunt, or if they’re going to go after an animal or not, so providing training is providing them a brain stimulus. They actually have to think and process: What are we trying to get from them in order for them to receive a reinforcement?
It could be putting their body in a different position than they might be used to. Here, for example, a lot of our lions and our tiger, because of the variety of tours we provide including some that are treat tours, they are trained and conditioned to sit this way against the fence to get their treat nice and calmly. But I want them this way against the fence, I want them lateral, so I can touch different parts of their body or be able to access their tail. So it’s even just manipulating their body in different ways or making them think a little bit more and also getting reinforcement, which is a snack, so of course that’s enriching all around.
What was the most challenging animal you’ve trained?
It’s a long list. My professional history has led to me training a lot of animals. A few of my facilities found out that I knew how to train and then just gave me all of their problem animals! So that’s hard to say. I can tell you my easiest. One of my easiest trainers was a male jaguar I worked with at my last facility: He was young, he was motivated, and he wanted nothing but just to get the food. So as soon as I could slow him down and get him focused, his behavioral profile became awesome. Probably some of my hardest training has been squirrel monkeys. They were in a group of four, and they’re really intelligent animals, so to be able to manage four very small animals moving very quickly, as a single trainer, was very hard.
Sometimes I’ve come into a facility where an animal had, without those people knowing, been trained to do bad things, and training out those behaviors is actually a lot harder than training a new behavior. Two of our lion boys here—love them, and love all the keepers before me—became conditioned to be food-aggressive and fence-fight before they were fed. But that’s obviously not something that’s conducive to them being happy in their environment, so figuring out the plan to get them untrained was pretty hard. But now they’re doing it and it’s awesome.
You mentioned the materials in the enclosure that you use to manipulate animals around the habitat. Are there any other materials you use besides food?
There’s a lot of equipment that goes into training. Here, we use tongs to feed all of our animals, not just the big guys but even the smaller guys. We always like to keep that distance between fingers and food and teeth. So we have these really cool tongs we use that are made for reptiles, made by Zoo Med—they’re metal, easily disinfected, and the ends are curved so not too sharp and pointy. It makes it easy for us to grab food very quickly for a nice fast rate of reinforcement.
We also have a variety of bridges: I don’t know how to speak tiger, or speak serval, so what a bridge does is connect what I’m asking from the animal to what they are giving me; it’s a bridge from A to B.
Other tools that we use are things that help us with the safety of getting a tail. I’ve seen certain keepers use snake hooks as a way to reach in, not with your body, and be able to grab something and bring it closer to you, and then we can shape and approximate it so the animal eventually gives the tail to us. And then there’s all of the equipment you would need for whatever medical procedure you’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes an animal will allow us to put a tourniquet on, that male jaguar allowed us to put a blood pressure cuff on his tail, sometimes you need certain ointments, medications, lots of stuff.
Let’s say you’ve been working with Blitz, a lynx here, and he’s successfully been trained to present his tail for blood draw, and take food nicely and politely, and go into a transport cage nicely and politely. Is training ever done? When do you stop teaching?
In my opinion, no, training is never done. A vet has a list of this many behaviors they want, whether it’s checking the animal’s feet, checking their ears, checking their mouth. That list is really long on its own, and outside of those, we can teach just some fun behaviors. We say we don’t really train them to do tricks, and the “tricks” are not for us, if we do end up training them for something that’s a fun behavior: It’s for their brain and their welfare and for them to feel comfortable in their environment. So if I was training Blitz and he was giving me great responses and a really good behavioral profile, I would want to keep that going because that animal is going to get bored or get frustrated if all of a sudden he’s not receiving the same kind of reinforcers he was getting before, if he’s not having the same engagement in a training session.
So then it’s about using that keeper creativity to think of “What else can I do?” and reaching out into the community. I’m part of a couple of Facebook groups that talk about training domestic cats and dogs, so that if I end up with an animal who is on point and they’ve given me everything I’ve requested so far, I can start to get a little bit creative. And that’s not something we’d want to take away from them. If they’re already used to that engagement with their handler, and being worked with a high frequency, we don’t want to drop that down and say, “Oh, we’ll check in on him every two weeks or so and make sure he still knows how to do those things.” We want to really keep that brain going.
And for all of you out there who say you can’t wait to schedule a trip, these training sessions are going to be available in tours as well. So when you’re here for a tour, you can say, “Where’s that training session?” and then I’ll climb out of the woodwork and you’ll get to see some cool stuff.