Proactive Development of an Integrated Behavioral Husbandry Program in a Large Zoological Setting
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2002
Michele Miller1, DVM, PhD; Marty Sevenich MacPhee2; Jill Mellen2, PhD
1Department of Veterinary Services, Disney’s Animal Programs, Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; 2Department of Education and Science, Disney’s Animal Programs, Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA



Behavioral husbandry programs have become an essential part of animal management in zoos and aquaria. Enrichment and training are used to help meet the needs of the animals and improve animal care.1,5,7 Training is useful in achieving daily husbandry tasks and has been applied to allow certain veterinary procedures. Since the early 1990s, a number of publications have outlined the use and benefits of enrichment on animal health and training for specific diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.2-4,6-8 In many cases, these programs are created in response to a particular problem that has already occurred. When specific behavioral husbandry programs are instituted after the need arises, there is a delay in correcting the problem or the ability to perform the required procedures using operant conditioning and other training techniques.

Background Information

In April 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened to the public. The creation of this new zoological park provided a unique opportunity to proactively design and implement a behavioral husbandry program along with the development of traditional animal care protocols. Hiring of keepers, animal managers/curators, veterinary, science, and behavioral husbandry staff began approximately 2 years before the opening of the park and arrival of many of the animals. The goal was to develop and implement a training and enrichment plan, in conjunction with husbandry and medical programs, for every animal in the collection. Due to the challenges of managing mixed species in large exhibits, training techniques (e.g., operant conditioning) are considered essential tools for moving, separating, introducing, and acclimating the animals to each other and their exhibit and holding areas. In addition, the goals include the ability to perform a wide range of husbandry and veterinary procedures identified for each species, and meet the physical, social, psychologic, and physiologic needs of the animals through appropriate enrichment and care methods.

Program Framework

In creating the behavioral husbandry program at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the expectation is that all teams (animal care, veterinary, education, and science) use a framework or process for developing and maintaining both enrichment and training plans for the animals. The program framework includes the following components: setting goals, planning, implementation, documentation, evaluation, and readjustment.6,9 To focus time and resources, a list of behavioral priorities have been developed for each species. Identification of training goals and development of animal-specific plans are based on the following criteria: daily management needs, medical needs, natural history of the species, and individual’s history. In addition, enrichment goals and plans incorporate knowledge of the species’ and individual’s physical, psychologic, and social needs.

Enrichment Program

Enrichment plans are proactively designed. Rather than identify a specific item or enrichment technique first, the enrichment program framework requires setting the goal of encouraging or providing opportunities to exhibit specific species-appropriate behaviors and then identifying enrichment initiatives that can be used to achieve those goals.6 After planning, approval is required by the zoological manager and behavioral husbandry staff along with input from the veterinary and animal nutrition staff before implementation occurs. An enrichment calendar is created and responses to the specific enrichment initiatives are recorded and reviewed to determine if the goals have been reached (see for examples of forms used). (VIN editor: Original link not accessible 2–16–2021). Adjustments are made on a routine basis. Food items used for enrichment are considered part of the animals’ regular diet and evaluated for their nutritional contribution as well as their enrichment value.

Training Program

Although a training plan is designed for each species in the collection, selected species or groups are identified by the veterinary, animal care, and behavioral husbandry staff as high priority species for training to minimize the requirement for immobilization. At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, these species are elephants, rhinoceros, giraffe, hippopotamus, and okapi. Veterinary procedures are identified that could be performed using training techniques with or without the use of restraint devices. Examples include physical examination, blood collection, ultrasonography, injections (for drug or vaccine administration), minor wound treatment, and foot/hoof care.

Keepers and managers use the same framework (i.e., setting goals, planning, implementation, documentation, evaluation, and readjustment) with regard to creating training plans. Successful planning and implementation requires active participation and support by all teams (Table 1). When training for a veterinary procedure, the veterinary staff begins by explaining the procedure and describing each step to be performed (i.e., equipment used, requirements for positioning, area of animal that will be touched, potentially stressful, or painful stimuli). Veterinarians help prioritize the behaviors included in the plan for the species. In addition, veterinarians and veterinary technicians attend training sessions on a regular basis to provide feedback during the shaping of the behaviors and allow the animal to acclimate to the presence of less familiar staff members.

Table 1. Disney’s Animal Kingdom animal training: philosophy and expectations


Safety is always our first consideration in any training initiative (i.e., animal safe, keeper safe, equipment safe, process safe).


All keepers and zoological managers are expected to understand and articulate the animal training philosophy that was taught in training methods class. All keepers are expected to be able to articulate and apply animal training techniques to achieve training goals as outlined by their area team.


There is no separation between animal training and animal management. All keepers/zoological managers are trainers; all trainers are keepers/zoological managers.


Training is one of the many animal management tools that we use to facilitate good animal care. Many of the behaviors trained are meant specifically to facilitate medical care, often allowing us to avoid immobilizing/physically restraining an animal for treatment. The choice of immobilization/restraint versus training will be based upon the amount of time needed to train, the severity/urgency of the illness/injury, and the benefit to the animal. Sometimes it will not be possible to use training techniques during a particular husbandry/medical procedure and various levels of restraint or immobilization will be necessary.


A successful training program should be proactive, not reactive. In other words, planning is an important part of a successful training program.


Keepers should routinely review past training records for patterns. For example, training records can be used to assess routine causes of periodic aggression, or identify differences in relative success in training various behaviors. Keepers can use these past records to predict situations that may be precursors to breakdown in trained behaviors. Zoological managers should periodically ask keepers if these reviews have been completed.


All keepers are expected to learn about the natural and individual history of the animals that they care for and train. When training, keepers need to assess and understand how the animal’s natural history and individual history affect that animal during the training process. Zoological managers should make sure that keepers have and use this knowledge.


To ensure consistency among the animal care staff, the behavioral husbandry team provides an Introductory Training Methods class and on-the-job training. Currently that team is in the process of developing additional opportunities to develop technical skills using other species. Specifically, a colony of rats will be maintained for staff to use in practicing a variety of training techniques. Dedicated behavioral husbandry managers and specially trained zoological managers oversee the implementation and provide one-on-one mentoring.

As with enrichment, documentation is essential to evaluation and readjustment of a training plan. Records are written after every training session. Tracking of progress on trained behaviors are reviewed using the “Procedure Status Forms” for high priority species. Examples can be found on the training website ( (VIN editor: Original link not accessible 2–19–2021). Husbandry training has routinely been applied to mammals, especially marine mammals, primates, and other megavertebrates.5,8 However, the same techniques are readily applicable to ungulates, birds, reptiles, fish, and even some invertebrates. Realistic expectations for training species-appropriate behaviors should be created during the goal-setting step using knowledge of that animal’s natural history, physical capabilities and temperament, and management logistics. A few examples of successful training include: training waterfowl to voluntarily enter crates, stationing of the Komodo dragons on a scale, shifting of crocodilians to holding areas using an audible cue, desensitization of white and black rhinoceros to rectal ultrasonography (either in a stall or chute), physical examination and blood collection from tigers and giraffe, open mouth behavior in multiple species for examination and drug administration (e.g., lions, hippos, primates), presentation for injection by hand (e.g., primates), and storks entering holding areas from exhibit on cue.

Additional information on training and enrichment programs is available at (VIN editor: Original link not accessible 2–19–2021). and (VIN editor: Original link not accessible 2–19–2021).


The authors gratefully acknowledge the commitment of the behavioral husbandry, veterinary, science, and animal care staff of Disney’s Animal Kingdom to the ongoing development of the behavioral husbandry program.

Literature Cited

1.  Duncan A. Lions, tigers and bears: the road to enrichment. In: Proceedings of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Annual Meeting. 1994:270–277.

2.  Laule G. Addressing psychological well-being: training as enrichment. In: AAZPA/CAZPA Annual Conference Proceedings. 1992:415–422.

3.  Laule G, Whitaker MA. The use of positive reinforcement techniques in the medical management of captive animals. In: Proceedings of the Joint Conference of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians and the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians. 1998:383–387.

4.  McManamon R. Veterinarian’s role in monitoring the behavioral enrichment standards of the Animal Welfare Act. In: Fowler ME, Miller RE, eds. Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine, Current Therapy 4. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders Co.; 1999:387–391.

5.  Mellen JD, Ellis S. Animal learning and husbandry training. In: Kleiman DG, Allen ME, Thompson KV, Lumpkin S, eds. Wild Mammals in Captivity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 1996:88–99.

6.  Mellen J, Sevenich MacPhee M. Philosophy of environmental enrichment: past, present, and future. Zoo Biol. 2001;20:211–226.

7.  Reichard T, Shellabargar W. Training for husbandry and medical purposes. In: Proceedings of the American Association of Zoo Park Aquaria Annual Meeting. 1992:396–402.

8.  Reichard T, Shellabargar W, Laule G. 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.

9.  Sevenich 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: The AZA Annual Conference Proceedings. 2000:49–55.


Speaker Information
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Michele Miller, DVM, PhD
Department of Veterinary Services
Disney’s Animal Programs
Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA

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