Training in the Zoo

What does training mean?

Training means that abilities or experience is gained through systematic, repeated exercises – learning in short - regarding both humans as well as animals.

Learning is a natural part of the world of the animals. Predator young fight and play with live prey caught by their mother in which way the young learn how to catch their own prey. Young birds fiercely wave their wings and hold on to the branch on which they are sitting with a firm grip until they feel convinced that their wings are strong enough to carry them. Wild animals need to acquire numerous skills such as finding feed, building a nest, defending their territory or bringing up young. Only the ones that learn fast and acquire the right skills will be allowed to breed. Actually this learning is training and a vital part of the animals’ natural behavior.


Why do we train in the Zoo?

Training in the Zoo is far from a new phenomenon. Since the very early days, animals have been trained and presented as entertainment to the zoo visitors. Polar bears on a leash being walked by their keepers or chimpanzees painting pictures or participating in children’s birthdays. Today, we still train the animals, only today the purpose and the experience is a completely different one.

When watching the keepers opening the mouth of the polar bear or examining the sea lion’s flippers one might get the impression that the animals become tame which is absolutely not the case. The animals simply perform because they are rewarded. Not necessarily in the shape of food, as it may also be attention from the keeper or very often just the challenge of learning something new. It is particularly important to understand that it is not possible to starve the animals to work or learn. That would ruin their confidence in the keeper and make them frustrated and maybe even aggressive. Animals are not so different from us, they also enjoy solving tasks, learning and receiving a reward. It is imbedded in the brain and is inherited in all live organisms.

In short, the basic purpose of training in the Zoo is to ensure maximum animal welfare and conveying knowledge to the visitors about the natural behavior of the animals and their life in the Zoo. Training helps strengthening the physical and mental health of the animals. Through training the animals are exercised when for instance they are rewarded for moving about in their enclosure. This is also helpful on a daily basis when the animals are moved in order for their enclosure to be cleaned. They have learned that it pays to go in or out of the stable when encouraged by the keeper to do so. Through training the animals can also learn to solve difficult tasks and thereby be stimulated or they can be trained in using enrichment which they might otherwise not have been able to use.

Training becomes very useful when veterinary tests are needed like for instance blood samples or in connection with daily checks to ensure that the animals are healthy. Here they learn to step up on a scale or to have their temperature measured. Some animals also learn to accept treatments like eye drops or vaccinations. In case the animals need to be transported they learn to enter a transport cage if some day it should become necessary to remove them from their enclosure or send them to another zoo. There are hardly any limits to how much they can learn. Training is also a matter of safety in the daily work. If it was necessary to hold a sea lion in order to distribute eye drops the staff would most likely be bitten if it was at all possible to hold the animal. Zoo could tranquilize the sea lion, which, however, would be risky, as sea mammals easily stop breathing during anaesthesia. Furthermore, it would be an unpleasant experience for the animal. Without training Zoo would not have the same opportunity to treat the animals in a safe manner.

Animals that are not used to being touched, handled or separated from their fellow species may be scared, stressed or even dangerous in such situations. That is very unpleasant for them and they may become ill or even die from the stress they experience in such situations. Therefore, it is important to train the animals for situations that may arise in the Zoo and thereby make them generally comfortable. They may even end up finding it exciting to be paid a visit by the vet or to enter a transport cage. Training increases the animals’ confidence in the humans that take care of them and instead the experience becomes an enriching and stimulating part of the daily lives of the animals. Furthermore, training may contribute to scientific research. When the female rhino was expecting in 2014/2015 blood samples were frequently collected in order to measure progesterone in her blood. The progesterone level in the blood is known to decrease dramatically immediately before delivery, only a precise graph describing the changes in the progesterone level immediately prior to delivery was only sparsely documented. Today we know a lot more – thanks to admirable training efforts on the part of the rhino training team.

When we wish to make changes in the animals’ environment like for instance introducing new members of the herd, training may help teach them that new individuals is something positive. Training can also be used to change problematic behavior in the animals like for instance aggressions or stereotypes that may emerge if the animals feel insecure or fail to understand their surroundings. Here training may help remove the fear or unrest that triggers problematic behavior and provide a new focus. Finally training also benefits the zoo visitors. The animals possess numerous abilities which they don’t always show while the visitors are watching. Through training the animals can learn to show their natural behavior and special abilities when asked by the keepers. In this way it is for instance possible to show how the owl is able to fly silently and hunt without the prey noticing it until it is too late.

Who are the trainers?

Animals are as individual as humans and when you train animals you get to know their “personality” very well. This is a major help to detect minor changes in the animals’ behavior that may be caused by disease, pregnancy or problems in the herd at an early stage. In this way it is possible to make an immediate plan and solve the problem. In the Zoo it is the keepers that undertake the training. They spend time with their animals every day and quickly detect changes such as disease or unusual behavior. All keepers undergo a training course and are then taught in the individual section in which they are to work. It is important that all keepers in a section is able to train the animals. In this way there will always be a keeper present that can for instance ask the polar bear to open its mouth to see if it has broken a tooth if it has trouble eating instead of sedating it.

Various species need various degrees and types of training. The keepers, veterinarians, curators enrichment and training co-ordinators and interpreters decide which training is necessary or desirable in terms of the individual species. In the elephant herd training plays a big role every day. It may be very problematic if an elephant gets a sore leg. Elephants need to have their feet checked on a daily basis. Therefore, the keepers check for stones stuck under the foot that may cause inflammation and that the nails have not grown too long.


How do we train in the Zoo?

Before we start training the animals it is very important to have gathered as much knowledge about them as possible. There are many different animals in the Zoo that live in various environments and that are active at various times of the day. Some live together and some live alone. Some are prey and some are predators. Their senses are very different – for instance some animals have very good eyesight whereas others are almost blind.

Parallel with the gathering of knowledge about the species it is also important to know the history of the individual animal. Some animals grow very old, such as for instance chimpanzees and turtles and they may have lived in several other places such as zoos, laboratories, private homes or maybe even in the wild. In this way the animals carry numerous experiences, history, diseases, births etc. with them which has made them into the individual animals they are. In the planning of the training many elements need to be considered.

The training of an animal starts as soon as contact is possible. It may be in the shape of play, touch, feeding or simply trust – lots of trust! Contact with the animal is slowly established and through this contact a behavior may be shaped that may come into use at a later stage.

It may be that the animal stands in a certain way or it learns to stay calm when the keepers work in the stable. If the animal comes from elsewhere the training often starts in the quarantine where the initial trust in humans/keepers is established.

When the animal appears to be ready the actual training starts – generally referred to as “clicker-training”. Basically clicker-training consists in rewarding and thereby strengthening the desired behavior. Undesired behavior is not rewarded. In order to tell the animal exactly when it has done something good a so-called marker is often used. It may be a clicker, a whistle or simply the word “good”. It is actually possible to use any sound as long as the animal does not know it in advance. Most animals have never heard the sound of a clicker until the day the training starts. If you wish to train a snake that is deaf it is possible to use a light flash as a marker.

Once a suitable marker is chosen training starts. The marker relates to something which the animal wants, usually food. The process is: click, give feed – click, give feed and after a while the animal understands that the click sound means that feed or reward is coming up.

The advantage of using the clicker is that it makes it possible to tell the animal exactly when it did the right thing. Imagine that you were to tell a sea lion exactly when it made a perfect somersault in the air. It would be difficult to throw a fish in the exact right moment – this is where the clicker comes in. Imagine that you take a snapshot exactly when it hangs perfectly in the air – this is when you need to click.  

Often a target pole is used as a training tool. It is a stick with a small ball at the end on which the animal learns to place its nose, forehead or paw. Once the animal has learnt this, which usually doesn’t take long, you can start to guide the animals in the desired direction. It may be to enter a transport cage or a scale but it may also be moving from one place to another.

Slowly, step by step, you shape the desired behavior until finally reaching the goal. This process is called shaping.