Gregory J. Fleming, DVM, DACZM
Disney's Animal Programs and Environmental Initiatives, Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA
Historically, the word 'training' conjures up images of lions jumping through hoops or parrots riding a bicycle on a tight wire. However, at Disney's Animal Programs the word 'training' cannot be used without the word 'enrichment'. These two processes now go hand in hand and will allow animals to exhibit their natural array of behaviors and assist, in turn, the veterinarians in medical procedures. This talk will focus on training zoo animals for veterinary procedures. However, the act of training can also enrich an animal's life by providing positive enriching environments.
Enrichment can be defined as a process for improving or enhancing animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitants' behavioral biology and natural history.1 It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing behavioral choices available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities, thus enhancing animal welfare.1 More information on this process can be found at www.animalenrichment.org.
The enrichment framework developed at Disney's Animal Programs provides a process to ensure that our enrichment program meets the needs of the animals, and provides them with the opportunity to experience enhanced animal welfare. Animal welfare involves both the physical health of the animals (e.g., preventing and treating illnesses and injuries), as well as their psychological well-being. As an important aspect of welfare, an animal's psychological well-being is influenced by whether it can:
Perform its highly motivated behaviors
Respond to environmental conditions using its evolutionary adaptations
Develop and use its cognitive abilities
Effectively cope with challenges in its environment
The words 'animal training' often conjures up images of animal side shows, where animals were trained to complete a variety of unnatural acts for our entertainment. Training now has a different context which includes "training" animals to exhibit a variety of natural behaviors for husbandry, education, and yes, entertainment purposes.
Animals continually gather information and respond to it. This process may be described as learning. A similar definition might be that learning is a change in behavior that occurs as the result of practice. Whether we are aware of it or not, as animal caretakers, we influence what animals in zoos and aquariums learn. In other words, as caretakers, we are teaching or training our animals all the time. Sometimes we are aware of what we're teaching or training; we make conscious efforts to "train" animals to exhibit a variety of behaviors for husbandry, education, and entertainment purposes. Sometimes we influence (train) animals' behavior inadvertently through our actions, our husbandry routines, or through other stimuli present in the captive environment. In effect, animal care staff is always training and they need to be aware of that fact. Training is all about associations. The key to an optimal captive environment is to facilitate animals' opportunities to make associations that enhance their wellbeing.
Setting Up A Training Program
A well-planned, consistently delivered training process is critical to the success of any program. To achieve this type of program, many facilities utilize a framework that is taught in American Zoo and Aquarium Association's (AZA) course, Managing Animal Enrichment and Training Programs, called the "spider" model. Steps in this framework include Setting goals, Planning, Implementation, Documentation, Evaluation, and Re-adjusting. More information on this process can be found at www.animaltraining.org. It is beneficial to start a training program by determining the overall behavioral goals (i.e., detailing the specific behaviors to be trained). This is the first step in the spider process, setting goals. During this goal development process, it is important to include all parties involved with the management of the animals. This may include meeting with and seeking feedback from keepers, veterinary staff, nutritionist, behavioral husbandry staff, curators, and managers. Goals should be based on the needs of the staff. For example, a veterinarian would like a blood sample from the animal. The goals in this case would then be to train an animal to enter a crate and desensitize to a blood draw. The next step is planning. Having everyone on the same page with clearly laid out plans, assignments, and timelines helps to facilitate a smooth process. Defining roles and creating clear avenues of communication among all participants is also important. This can be accomplished through regularly scheduled team meetings, a consistent method of documentation, and continual communication among all staff involved in training. Planning also includes creating a training plan, a step by step guide for how trainers are going to shape the behavior. Training plans are meant to just be a guide, a way for the trainer to think through the process before they start training an animal. Creating a training plan also creates a historical document for future reference. One way to write a plan is to establish what the final behavior will look like and then break down the behavior into a series of small steps. These small steps are called "successive approximations". The next several sections will discuss other considerations when starting a program.
Selecting and Shaping Behaviors
It is possible to train reptiles for a variety of behaviors. In order to select the most effective and appropriate techniques and behaviors for the species, it is necessary to consider the following:
1. The animal's natural history – it's important to consider the animal's predispositions. For example, it may make more sense to ask an arboreal animal to station off the ground/on a perch.
2. The animal's individual history – it's important to consider the early rearing/life experiences of the animal being trained. For example, an animal that's imprinted on humans may be trained substantially differently than a wild-caught animal brought in as an adult.
3. The animal's function or "role" in your collection – the animal may be in the collection as part of a breeding program or part of an education program. The type of training and your level of interactions with that animal may differ depending on the function this animal serves in your collection.
When selecting shaping techniques the above must also be considered as well as the safety of both the staff and the animal. Two shaping techniques that work well with reptiles are baiting and targeting. Baiting is when a trainer uses food to lure an animal. Tongs or forceps can be utilized to hold the food as an extension of the trainer's hand. Targeting can also be used effectively with reptiles. The animal must be previously trained to touch a body part to the target, for example a crocodilian can be trained to touch the end of its snout to a buoy. Once this behavior is reliable, the target can be a very useful tool to get an animal to move from one location to another or into a crate.
When beginning a training program, it is best to start training in an area that is safe for the animal care staff and the animal. An area where trainers can have access to the animal safely is usually the night quarters, holding area. Training can also be done in crates, chutes, or even open exhibit areas. Because all facility designs are different, training staff will have to be creative and utilize the space available. For safe access to an animal for behaviors such as blood draw, it is recommended the animal be trained to enter a crate which allows safe access to body parts. It is important to remember that a fancy, expensive facility is not necessary to accomplish a successful training program, just a creative mind.
A critical component to positive reinforcement training is finding reinforcement or reward for which an animal is willing to work. Often food reward is offered because most animals respond positively when given food. However, in many mammal species, physical contact like scratching or brushing may also be used as a reward.
In most cases, when using food as a reward, the animals' regular diet can be used for training. Dividing the animal's diet into smaller portions can provide great opportunities for more training sessions. It is helpful to have a bucket or a waist pack containing diet near the trainer, so that reinforcement can be easily retrieved and delivered in a timely manner. Delivery of meat reinforcement can occur by placing a food item on tongs and passing it through the barrier or by tossing meat over or under the barrier. Hand feeding is not recommended with carnivorous species. It can be a safety issue for the keeper, and can also cause the animal to become focused on and aggressive toward the trainer. With respect to herbivores and grazers, care must also be taken as there are many rhino keepers missing the end of a finger from an accidental bite. Often placing the food in a reward in a plastic cup and then dumping on the ground after the training is complete will form the association.
It is important for trainers to keep records of all sessions. Trainers can go back and look for patterns in the information which helps keep consistency among team members, and leaves a historical record for others. For examples of documentation methods go to www.animaltraining.org
The following are examples of training programs with crocodiles, Komodo dragons, giraffe and gorillas to name a few.
These are just a few examples of how zoo animals can be trained to facilitate medical care. These techniques can be applied to a multitude of species and sizes of mammals, reptiles and birds. It is important to remember when designing a training program that knowledge of the species' natural and individual histories is critical to understanding the needs and capabilities of the animal. A good partnership between the veterinarians and animal care staff is also crucial to the success of any training program. The responsibility lies with us to continually strive to learn more in order to better care for captive animals, including reptiles. Training can have a huge impact on an animal's welfare and, although it may require an investment of time and effort, it often pays off in an improved quality of life for the animal.
1. www.animalenrichment.org: Disney's Animal Enrichment web site
2. www.animaltraining.org: Disney's Animal Training web site
1. Mellen, J., Sevenich MacPhee. M. (2001). Philosophy of environmental enrichment: Past, present, and future. Zoo Biology 20: 211–226.