By Jessa Franck, Keeper
Imagine you’re a Zookeeper working with the giraffes. You are putting a flake of alfalfa in the hay feeder when you notice the youngest female has a cut by her eye. She’s moving around so much that it’s hard to get a good look at the injury. What do you do? Anesthetizing any animal is risky and giraffes are among the worst due to their height and sensitive nature. Fortunately, you have been training the giraffes to accept brief examinations. You call her over to the training platform and reward her with small pieces of apple, grapes, and acacia leaves as she calmly touches her nose to a pole after hearing the command “target.” She starts to back up and you say “move up” then “eye” and “ear” as you manipulate the corresponding parts. The vet is standing next to you and he also has a chance to look over the injury. The cut is smaller than you first imagined and no treatment will be necessary other than daily monitoring for infection.
Now what if that giraffe was a big cat? If you’re a Zookeeper working with the jaguars and notice the male jaguar has been chewing his food primarily on the right side of his mouth. Unlike the giraffes, you can’t have him stick his head over the fence and touch him. Fortunately, you have been training him to present different parts of his body. It’s done with protected contact, like a mesh barrier, for the safety of you and the cat. You tell him to “open” and make a special shape with your fingers that corresponds to the command. He opens his mouth and adds his usual snarling comment. The gums on his left side look a little inflamed. You’ll notify the vet. You reward the cat with a piece of meat on a specifically made long stick, once again designed to keep you both safe. The male jaguar could also stand on his hind legs with his chest pressed against the mesh, present either of his sides, and move from den to den.
Zoo keepers work to develop relationships with all of the animals they care for. Cleaning, feeding, and observations can tell you a lot about how an animal is feeling, but training gives keepers another tool to monitor animal health. At the Sacramento Zoo keepers work with management and vet staff to develop training plans for the animals in their areas with priority given to animals in need of more monitoring or with upcoming transfers. This planning involves a reason for the behavior and a step-by-step process in how the behavior will be achieved explaining parameters like where the training will be done, how often, by whom, and what training aids are needed.
Keepers train birds, reptiles, and mammals. The big cats and primates tend to be the easiest to train because they are the most food motivated. Guests have the opportunity to watch some of the training that is done on exhibit with animals like the Black and white ruffed lemurs and the North American river otters. Keepers have to remain very focused while working with the animals because the animals are still wild and therefore unpredictable, so wait until the session is finished before you ask questions. And remember that just because we can get a chimpanzee to accept a shot in the arm doesn’t mean our dogs don’t steal food off the counters at home!