Class is in Session, for the Bobcat

This article was written for the Sacramento Zoo's Winter 2010-2011 Maagizo publication.

A low growl rumbled in the bobcat’s chest as he engaged in a staring contest with the troublesome apparatus - a silver kilogram scale covered with a green carpet square. Zoo keeper Chris Lewellyn stood by watching, waiting. The bobcat remained where he was, stubbornly refusing to place even just one furry foot onto the green carpet. This, of course, is despite the fact that he has sat on the offending scale many times, including during the previous day’s training session. After a short while, he began tentatively pacing around its edges.

“Tray,” Chris said.

To an outsider, the singular word would sound out of place and random. At this word, however, the bobcat ceased his pacing and shuffled closer to the scale. He sat down mere inches from the carpet and looked up to Chris expectantly.

“No. Tray,” She said.

For a few brief seconds, the bobcat and Chris stared into each other’s eyes. Resuming his low grumble, the bobcat then proceeded to slowly step over the scale, careful to avoid touching it in any way. He stopped with two feet in front, two feet in back of the scale, frozen in an absurd straddle. Again, he looked up at Chris, waiting for a reward that would not come. Chris stayed silent and still, again just waiting patiently. The seconds ticked by, until the bobcat finally repositioned his body behind the scale and carefully placed one foot on top of the soft, green carpet square.

“Good!” Chris said, as she quickly tossed him a piece of raw meat.

He looked up at her, clearly problem solving. With his eyes fixed on his trainer, awaiting any sign of movement from her, the bobcat slowly moved a second foot to the scale.

“Good,” said Chris. Again she tossed a piece of meat to him.
“Tray,” she said.

His growling still audible, the bobcat moved his back feet ever so slowly towards the scale, looking up to Chris in the hope that any one of these minuscule movements might be enough to earn meat pieces. Finally, after it became evident that Chris would not be rewarding such a small motion, the bobcat placed both back feet onto the carpeted scale.

“Good! Good tray!”

At this, Chris tossed a few pieces of meat to the bobcat, and then a handful of meat onto the ground in his house. He leapt off the scale, eager to enjoy his treats. Chris carefully removed the scale from the bobcat’s house. She replaced it in its proper bin, where it sits ready to be used during the next training session. Tomorrow.

The Interpretive Center is currently training many new behaviors with the education animals for spring Wildlife Animal Shows as well as daily routines like the above scale training. Tolomaa, the bobcat, is also learning to highlight his balance and jumping, while the kinkajou will show off how well she can move across tree limbs. Both trainers and animals alike find training to be a very rewarding and enriching experience.

As an example, the Kookaburra is learning how to catch food tossed from a trainer. While this behavior is ultimately rewarding because of the food he is receiving, it is also rewarding in many other ways: it is strengthening his coordination; enhancing his natural behaviors; stimulating his mind; and solidifying his bond with his trainers. The keepers in the Interpretive Center thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to teach new behaviors and revel in the chance to enhance the animals’ lives.

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