Zoo training

Training animals in the zoo is important for their well being, and also a lot of fun!

Ellie Neuman, Jerusalem Biblical Zoo's coordiator of animal wellfare training and enrichment, tells us about training the animals at the Jerusalem zoo:

Have you ever seen an orangutan brush their teeth? Or maybe a giraffe come when called? How about a chimpanzee standing on the scales? Well here at Jerusalem Zoo the animals are trained for all these behaviours and more.

We all know that we can train our pets at home to do all different types of behaviours- we can train a dog to fetch the ball or a cat to jump on the couch. But the animals at the zoo are trained many important behaviours so that their keepers can look after them each day.

Training zoo animals to participate in their own care is one of the best ways we can ensure that the animals are healthy and that they have a good quality of life.

We use the same training techniques that you can use at home with your pets, working with positive reinforcement where we can teach the animals all different things.

How does positive reinforcement work?

The keepers spend a lot of time building a positive and strong relationship with the animals. Often this is done by giving them their favourite food. For the giraffes this is carob, and for the Bactrian deer they love carrots. The Cassowary’s favourite is dates and apples and the goats-well the goats love everything!!

How does the animal know when they have done the right thing?

When we start training the animals, we teach them a sound that means they have done the right thing and that their favourite food is coming. We will often use a whistle or the words “good” or “well done”. This sound is called a marker signal or a “bridge”. Over time the animals learn that when they hear the bridge it means what they are doing is correct and to come get their reward.

How do you teach the animals the new behaviours?

Sometimes the behaviours we teach our animals may be simple such as to open their mouth for a health check, whilst others are more complicated such as to put their tail or arm out to have blood taken. No matter what behaviour we want train, we break it down into tiny steps called “approximations”. We train each approximation at a time until the behaviour is finished, all the time reinforcing the animal with food when they do the right thing.

What are some behaviours the animals at the zoo can learn?

The most important behaviours we teach our animals are the behaviours we need each day for them to do, such as to come inside so we can clean their exhibit or to move from one area to another.

We also need to make sure the animals are healthy so we train them to stand on scales to check their weight, to open their mouths so we can inspect their teeth, and to check their eyes and ears and give eye drops if we need to. A lot of our animals are also trained to have x-rays, ultrasounds and receive injections, so that the vets can give them a good examination in a calm and positive way, which is all stress free.

We can also train our animals to go into a carry cage or transport crate in case we need to take them to the vet or if they get moved to another zoo. This way, we don’t have to stress them out by trying to catch them. They are more than happy to step into the crate as it has been made really positive for them through training

Training is also enrichment for the animals, giving them an opportunity to be mentally stimulated and have good welfare.

How can you train your pets at home?

In the same way that we train the animals at the Jerusalem zoo, you can train your pets at home. Whether it’s a dog, a cat, a bird or a goldfish all animals can learn through positive reinforcement training.  You just need to find out what their favourite food is, work out the behaviour you would like them to learn and then reward them when they do the right thing.

So the next time you have to take your dog to the vet why not train it to go happily in its carry cage, or if you need to trim your cats nail you can teach it to hold its paw out calmly, or you can train your goldfish to play soccer just for some fun.

If we can teach the tortoises at Jerusalem to race home to their house each night, you can teach your pets to do anything!!

Happy training :)

Photo by : Yuval Ofek.

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