By Zoo P.I. (Zoo Private Investigator)
Hi there everyone, Zoo PI here with some insider knowledge about the workings of the Zoo! Today I will be discussing how we train Nigel, our African Serval. Nigel is used in the Zoo PI stage show, as well as many other outreach programs here on zoo grounds. Because Nigel is a special education animal he is not out on exhibit, instead he lives in a behind-the-scenes area where our interpretive center staff can give him special care and training. Nigel is no ordinary serval, he was specially bread and raised to be an education animal that can be around people and walk on a leash. It takes constant training and human interaction to keep Nigel used to people because he is still a wild animal.
One way we train and socialize Nigel is by taking him out for walks on our reptile-house lawn. In order to walk him we need two things; treat-meat (which is just stew beef cut into small pieces), and a leash. Once we have all the items required and a second person for backup we can begin the walk! Nigel is trained to sit on a stump and present his neck for the leash when we give him the command to, “station”. Whenever he does something we ask him he is rewarded with meat. Because he is always looking for ways to get a reward Nigel tends to do all of his behaviors as soon as we ask, and sometimes without us even asking at all!
Most walks begin on the stage where his handler will go through all of his regular behaviors; like stepping up onto rocks and stumps on the stage, and reaching into a clear plastic tube to get meat from the bottom. When he has done all of his behaviors it is time for Nigel to lead us around. First thing is usually to check out new objects within sight, such as trash cans, rocks, plants, sometimes the zoo’s golf carts, and the occasional spilled popcorn or corn chips on the lawn (lucky for us Nigel only has a taste for meat!). Once all items have been thoroughly investigated it is usually time for Nigel to mark his territory. There are several places that he tends to go and spray to let any other African Servals in the area know to stay away because this zoo is his! Before it is time to go inside, Nigel likes to eat a little grass and lie down under a bush.
When Nigel is ready to go inside he will walk to the door and sit until it is opened, then he goes straight home and sits on his station again to be un-leashed. Once again he is rewarded for all behaviors and with one final command, “Okay”, the walk is officially over. With a belly full of meat Nigel likes to climb into his heated bed and take a nice long nap until dinner, maybe dreaming of what adventures await him on tomorrows walk.