Animal Behavior Management is Not Just for Keepers: The Role of the Zoo Veterinarian in an Animal Behavior Management Program
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2002
Beth Stark; Tim Reichard, DVM; Wynona Shellabarger, DVM
Toledo Zoo, Toledo, OH, USA


The role of training and enrichment in zoo animal husbandry is widely increasing in scope and magnitude. During the past several decades, the zoo industry has steadily improved the standards by which we care for captive animals. Gone are the days where animals reside in concrete and iron-barred exhibits, in favor of more naturalistic and interactive exhibits that allow animals to make choices about and within their environments. However, with the increase in behavioral opportunities comes a liability and challenge for the animal care staff. Visual and physical access to the animals can become limited in these new habitats, causing medical care to be more challenging. To combat this potential problem and ensure proper medical and psychologic care, zoos have turned to working hands-on with many species in animal training and enrichment programs.

The authors broached this subject at the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians conference in 1993 with a paper titled “Behavioral Training of Primates and Other Zoo Animals for Veterinary Procedures” highlighting the vast amount of medical and husbandry behaviors that could be trained in zoo animals.4 In recent years, numerous papers have echoed the importance of training specific behaviors for medical care or improved animal husbandry, and the importance of behavioral enrichment. In fact, it seems as though animal training and enrichment are at the forefront of zoo animal husbandry. With this surge of animal behavior management, several zoos throughout the country are employing a more programmatic approach toward training and enrichment.2,3,5 Furthermore, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association now includes enrichment as a requirement for accreditation.1

The development of an Animal Behavior Management Program requires the input and expertise of numerous zoo departments. The essence of this type of program is teamwork. It is crucial that each department recognizes its role in the program, as well as every other department’s role. From keepers, to curators, to maintenance and horticulture, to the veterinary staff, the behavioral health of the animals becomes a part of each area’s responsibilities. The keepers are the front line in this type of program: it is they who care for the animals daily and know the individual animals’ behaviors, the layout of the exhibit and holding areas, and the constraints on their time. The keepers are the trainers and the implementers of enrichment. However, without input and assistance from other departments, they can do only so much for the animals. This paper will examine the role of the veterinarian in an animal training and enrichment program, including interactions with and expectations of keepers, curators, and other zoo staff.

Program Framework

Consistency throughout all departments in the zoo is crucial to developing a quality animal training and enrichment program. Therefore, a program framework can help to lay out the expectations of the program in general. The basis of the framework should be the program vision or philosophy that will guide the staff to the final product—for example improved animal care and welfare through the implementation of training and enrichment. In addition to the vision, there are several key components to a successful program, including the following.

Program Coordinator

Although few zoos employ a single person to coordinate the training and enrichment programs, a central contact or point person is often essential. The coordinator can help to organize the program in terms of writing the vision, developing documentation, and writing procedures and protocols. The coordinator should also serve as a contact for all departments, and ensure that the other program elements are in place and consistent throughout the zoo. This person should be experienced in operant conditioning and familiar with the principles of enrichment and behavioral husbandry.

Goal Setting

Program Goals

Goal setting can take on many forms—from the programmatic approach to the individual behaviors targeted through training and enrichment. Setting overall goals for the program will set the standards for the program and establish a common ground for consistency and communication. For example, one goal might be to increase the occurrence of natural activity of resident animals.

Project Goals

Once the program vision and goals have been identified, individual behavioral goals can be determined. These may include enrichment priorities or behaviors for specific animals, management or medical behaviors to be trained, etc. A clear set of project goals with timelines helps to create a more cohesive team in which all are aware of future priorities, who will be responsible for each project, project timelines, involvement of other staff, etc. When setting project goals, it is important to include not only the keepers and curators, but veterinarians as well, as they can advise the staff on the specific behaviors to target for animal health and wellbeing. For example, behavioral goal setting at the Toledo Zoo includes desired medical behaviors from the veterinarians and input from the keepers, curators, and animal behavior manager regarding daily husbandry and animal management behaviors (i.e., shifting, behavioral problem solving, etc.).

Planning and Implementation of Goals

The establishment of training and enrichment goals paves the way for the daily work to begin. Prioritizing goals and clarifying the roles of all involved are important during this step. Primary trainers can be identified and staff training implemented as necessary. During this stage of a training project, primary trainers are outlining training steps and determining the best methods for training. Veterinarians can provide valuable input at this point. For example, during training for an ultrasound exam, the veterinarians can offer advice in terms of where on the animal’s body to place the probe, where to position the machine, etc. When proposing new enrichment items, the veterinarians can be integral in assessing potential health risks. In such cases, many zoos have resorted to enrichment approval forms in which new items are described and submitted for approval by curators, veterinarians, and program coordinators.


Throughout any behavior management project, documentation provides numerous benefits. Recording what enrichment items were offered, whether or not an item was used by a particular animal, or writing the results of a training session is key to a successful behavior program. Not only does this provide accountability and allow others on the behavioral team to monitor progress, it also allows staff to review the documents at a later date to look for behavioral patterns, correlations between different aspects of training (i.e., does the animal perform better for a specific reinforcer?), evaluate the use of enrichment, etc.

Evaluation and Readjustment

Evaluation can be a challenging aspect of a behavior management program. However, it is no less important than any other component of the framework. Both training and enrichment projects aim to target a specific response from the animals. By evaluating whether or not the appropriate response was achieved, the staff can adjust their methods to reach the desired behavior. Following a training project from start to finish, the veterinarian can review training records (documentation) to ensure that training is proceeding in a manner that will allow the final behavior to be achieved. In an enrichment program, we often place items in exhibits but fail to determine whether the animals react as intended. For example, enrichment to increase foraging behavior may be successful for one animal in an exhibit but may be ignored by others or become a catalyst for aggression between cagemates. Evaluating the effectiveness of enrichment items can ensure that the animals’ physical and psychologic needs are being met.

Role Clarification

With so many components of an animal behavior management program, it can become confusing trying to delineate the many responsibilities. Therefore, a document clarifying the roles of all involved in the program should be included in the basic framework of the program. The Toledo Zoo has developed “participant guidelines” for both training and enrichment that outline the responsibilities of all involved in both the training and enrichment aspects of the Animal Behavior Management Program. Included are the responsibilities of each of the following to each other:

  • Animal behavior manager.
  • Area keeper or primary trainer.
  • Senior keeper.
  • Area curator.
  • Veterinarian/Animal health staff.

Protocols and procedures for training and enrichment are also outlined in various documents to ensure that expectations are communicated to each member of the behavior team and to again clarify the roles of all involved.

Role of the Veterinarian

The design of an animal behavior management program can take many forms depending on the needs and priorities of the institution. Thus, the role of the veterinarian can differ significantly among zoos. At the Toledo Zoo, the veterinary staff, including veterinary technicians, plays an integral role in the program for both training and enrichment and are seen as support for the keepers, the implementers of the program.

The primary role of the veterinarian in the Toledo Zoo’s training projects is to provide guidance for the Animal Behavior Manager (ABM) and Primary Trainer (PT) in developing training projects. One or two members of the veterinary staff are assigned to serve as liaisons for each medical behavior being trained. Within this role are several responsibilities, including to:

1.  Provide input during goal setting sessions regarding training priorities.

2.  Work with PT, ABM, and area curator to develop guidelines for medical behavior training.

3.  Consult on safety concerns (human and animal) and how to mitigate risks.

4.  Review and provide input on training plans for medical behaviors to ensure that training steps are appropriate for the desired medical behavior/procedure.

5.  Work with the PT on medical behavior training goals according to established training steps and participate in training sessions as necessary both to assist in the training, as well as to establish a positive relationship with the animals (vet staff are often written into training plans for invasive behaviors, such as blood collection, injections, or ultrasound).

6.  Communicate with ABM regarding the progress of medical behaviors in training and veterinary needs as they apply to these behaviors.

7.  Work with keepers to modify diets to accommodate reinforcers for training.

8.  Participate in the design of restraint devices used during training sessions and procedures.

The veterinary input in the enrichment program is similar to that of the training program:

1.  Provide input during goal setting sessions regarding enrichment that is targeted to alleviate medical problems or undesirable behaviors that adversely affect animal health (feather or fur plucking, aggression toward conspecifics, etc.).

2.  Review and approve proposal forms for new enrichment items.

3.  Work as part of a team with keepers, curators, and ABM to develop behavioral management plans for animals that exhibit behavioral abnormalities or undesirable behaviors, such as aggression toward conspecifics, stereotypic behaviors, or other behaviors that can adversely affect animal health or wellbeing.

4.  Work as part of the above-mentioned team to develop isolation plans for animals that are removed from cagemates for a period of time, either for quarantine or behavioral reasons.

5.  Work with keepers to modify animal diets as needed to accommodate novel enrichment.

6.  Provide input regarding exhibit and holding area design for training and enrichment needs.

Cost:Benefit of an Animal Behavior Management Program

With an understanding of the importance of a zoo-wide training and enrichment program, it becomes obvious that while there are costs to this type of program (primarily staff time), they are far outweighed by the benefits. The ability to calmly separate animals for physical exams or procedures can reduce the need for immobilization drugs. Animals that choose to participate in such procedures tend to be calmer than when subject to physical or chemical restraint. In fact, many animals can be examined, treated, or diagnosed during regular training sessions, unaware that they are experiencing anything other than a routine part of their daily interaction with the staff. Such experiences can in fact be enriching for many animals, providing them with opportunities to make choices within a training session, and offering them activities that are mentally challenging or time consuming.

In addition to these obvious benefits to animal health, a training program can mean safer interactions for the animal care staff and enrichment can mean the difference between an animal exhibiting appropriate behavior and stereotypic behavior. Training and enrichment gives keepers additional contact with the animals, and therefore, allows for opportunities to observe the animals and detect potential medical problems. Through this program, animals will have increased trust in the veterinary staff, as they have been a positive aspect of the animals’ lives.

Common Questions and Concerns of Both Veterinarians and Keepers

While this paper is intended to address the role of the veterinarian in an animal behavior management program, other concerns will likely arise that affect staff members, and ultimately animal wellbeing. Additional challenges with this type of program include:

1.  How to gain support of upper management for the animal behavior management program.

2.  How to address staff and animal safety when embarking on a more hands-on approach to animal care.

3.  How to address keeper territoriality issues.

4.  How to get all area keepers on the same page in terms of support of the program and policies.

A programmatic approach to training and enrichment can help answer these and other concerns.


The nature of the animal behavior management program requires a team effort from all staff. Therefore, not only is the clarification of roles crucial; support of each other is just as important. As primary caregivers, both veterinarians and zoo keepers can become inundated with daily tasks and the increased responsibility that accompanies the improvement in zoo animal husbandry, medical care, conservation, and public education. Common concerns for veterinarians and keepers is how to make time for training and enrichment, and how to work together and gain each other’s support for this type of program. Because each comes from different perspectives of animal care, but have the same goal in mind, clear and honest communication is imperative. Realizing that animal wellbeing is the responsibility of all staff, veterinarians, keepers, and curators must work together to reach this and other common goals. Doing so can only benefit the animals.

Literature Cited

1.  American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Guide to accreditation of zoological parks and aquariums. 2000. (VIN editor: Original link not accessible 2–16–2021).

2.  MacPhee M, Mellen J. Framework for planning, documenting and evaluating enrichment programs (and the director’s, curator’s and keeper’s roles in the process). In: Proceedings of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association Annual Meeting. 2000:221–225.

3.  Moore D, Reiss D, Chepko-Sade D. Getting enrichment done: a multi-institutional approach. In: Proceedings of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association Annual Meeting. 2000:215–219.

4.  Reichard T, Shellabarger W. Behavioral training of primates and other zoo animals for veterinary procedures. In: Proceedings of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Annual Meeting. 1993:65–69.

5.  Stark B, Weichec M. The implementation of a zoo-wide training and enrichment program. In: Proceedings Addendum of the 1998 Joint Conference of American Association of Zoo Keepers, Elephant Managers Association, and American Zoo Horticulturists. 1998:30–41.


Speaker Information
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Beth Stark
Toledo Zoo
Toledo, OH, USA

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