Using operant conditioning techniques, lowland tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) can be trained to accept blood collection.
At the Audubon Zoo, one male and two female lowland tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) are housed together in a 1.5-acre mixed species exhibit. Prior to the start of this training project, the male was housed in a separate smaller exhibit, with no water feature for submersion. Because the tapirs are closely related genetically, we wanted to prevent reproduction while continuing to house them together. We chose to use 1000 mg Depo Provera® intramuscularly (Medroxy progesterone acetate; Pharmacia and Upjohn, Kalamazoo, MI, USA), which for these tapirs was 5.0 and 5.4 mg/kg respectively. We needed to train the females to accept weekly blood collection so we could monitor the success of the contraception by measuring serum progesterone levels in addition to observing them for any behaviors that might indicate estrus.
The program of conditioning was based on the following training principles.
1. Food was given at the end of each session as the primary reinforcement.
2. Tactile contact creates an innate response in the tapirs to relax, become laterally recumbent, and less responsive to stimuli. Given the tapir’s response, tactile contact is considered a positive secondary reinforcement.
3. The conditioning process used step-wise desensitization techniques. Each step of the training process was evaluated on the performance of the individual animal, and we did not progress to the next step until complete success was achieved in the present phase.
4. Safety of the staff and the animals were a top concern at all times.
All three tapirs were subsequently trained using operant conditioning techniques to lie in lateral recumbency and allow venipuncture of the medial saphenous vein. Training sessions were performed daily, and kept short. During each session the animal was lightly scratched along the dorsum, flanks, and abdomen until they were positioned laterally. Once they consistently performed this behavior, we introduced the equipment and personnel (phlebotomist) at each session. Then, we began with a series of approximations to palpate the region of the medial saphenous, followed by blunt pressure, and then introduction of a 23 ga butterfly catheter and syringe.
Within 6 weeks we were able to collect the first blood sample. To test the training, we used different keepers to perform the handling, followed by veterinary technicians and veterinary students as the phlebotomist.
We found this conditioning quite useful and since the start of the training program have been able to perform other medical procedures safely. It is easier to monitor body weights. We can obtain radiographs and ultrasound images with portable machines. We have also initiated a program to collect core body temperatures with rectal thermometers. Last year we had the opportunity to anesthetize one of our females to suture a wound using the training techniques. Objectively, we used a lower anesthetic dose to complete our task. Subjectively, the procedure was smoother and less traumatic than prior anesthetic events. Overall, the increased contact and training with these animals has improved our ability to care for them in captivity.
Sheila Barrios, trainer-keeper, Audubon Nature Institute-Audubon Zoo.