Susan C. Wiebe
Operant conditioning is behavioral training in the form of positive reinforcement for captive species. It is beneficial for advancement of medical and animal management to eliminate the need for general anesthesia or manual restraint for simple procedures. A training program was designed to condition and desensitize one male and one female captive tiger (Panthera tigris) for phlebotomy. As a result of behavioral training techniques, White Oak Conservation Center staff is able to perform phlebotomy without restraint.
Operant conditioning in captive species is an important tool for the advancement of medical and animal management. It has proven to be effective and reliable in dealing with current and future challenges faced by animal care staff. The majority of today’s animal facilities utilize some form of behavioral training. Positive reinforcement and desensitization are popular operant conditioning techniques that have been performed for years.1 Operant conditioning techniques are instrumental in conditioning various species to allow chute/crate restraint, urine collection, subcutaneous and intramuscular injections, and phlebotomy. Effective conditioning in all species, including large and potentially dangerous species, can reduce the need for general anesthesia and manual restraint.1,2 It can also significantly reduce stress and aggressive behaviors that are evident in many captive individuals.3 At White Oak Conservation Center the carnivore department and veterinary staff have been successful training captive tigers for phlebotomy without chemical or physical restraint.
Materials and Methods
Behavioral training was applied to one male and one female adult neutered tiger (Panthera tigris; 15 and 16 years of age respectively). Training was completed in a chain link corral adjacent to the main enclosure. The corral is divided into three sections. Each section is connected with guillotine doors. The aluminum catch crate (1.96 m [77 inch] L × 1.0 m [38 inch] W and 1.14 m [45 inch] H; vertical bars placed 0.1 m [4 inch] apart) was built for transport. It is now used for conditioning and is set up in the middle section flush against the guillotine door. The middle section was also used as the staff work area, which provided safe access to the tigers in the crate.
Twice per week both tigers were conditioned to complete the following behaviors. Walk into the catch crate, turn around and lie down. For access to the lateral tail vein, the tail had to be pulled between the vertical bars of the end panel. A clicker was used as a bridge and feline diet (Dallas Crown, Inc., 2000 W. Fair, Kaufman, TX, USA) served as the reward for completion of the behavior. Once all of these behaviors were performed consistently additional steps were taken to desensitize the animals to allow phlebotomy. Again, positive reinforcement was used, utilizing food as a reward, while animals were desensitized. Steps in this process included manipulation (gentle pulling) of the tail, clipping and alcohol swabbing the injection site, and finally, piercing of the skin with a needle. Once these steps were accomplished, veterinary technicians joined the conditioning program to attempt venipuncture. Blood was drawn once per week with a 20-ga Vacutainer® multidraw needle and adapter (Beckton Dickinson and Company, Franklin Lakes, NJ, USA). Eight milliliters of blood were collected, and a complete blood count and chemistry profile were performed.
Within 4 months of starting the training process, both tigers were completing several desired behaviors. At 6 months of training, the male tiger had advanced to gentle manipulation of the tail, piercing of the skin with a needle, and successful phlebotomy by veterinary clinic staff. In the 5 months since the first successful blood collection, phlebotomy has been done weekly at a 92% success rate. The female was more problematic, but at 8 months of training, she routinely performed several behaviors, including tail manipulation and skin piercing. However, she has not remained in position long enough for successful phlebotomy as of this writing.
A conditioning program was designed and implemented that set goals and guidelines to improve management of the tigers at White Oak Conservation Center. The first goal of the training program was to have tigers move into the crate for transport. Using the catch crate in the training program proved to be a practical and effective tool. The primary function of the catch crate is to restrain, transport and weigh the tigers as needed. The vertical bars along the sides and ends of the crate are widely spaced so caution is used during training, with staff and animal safety the primary concern.
The second goal was getting the tigers into position in the crate for successful phlebotomy. Using the crate for phlebotomy was an added advantage. During the training session neither the male or female was locked into the crate thus avoiding additional stress. It was imperative that tigers were given the option of leaving the situation if they became uncomfortable. The premise behind this was to ensure that training remained positive.
Closing the crate door to contain the tigers was the third training goal. This was particularly important for the female tiger. Due to previous medical problems prior to positive reinforcement training, the female tiger was restrained in the crate for an extended period of time. Therefore, tentative and cautious behavior had to be dealt with during the training process. Venison and horse chunk meat (Dallas Crown, Inc., 2000 W. Fair, Kaufman, TX, USA) were added as additional rewards to encourage desired behavior. Ignoring the female after non-responsive training also stimulated desired behaviors.
New behaviors are continuously being added to the tiger program such as urine collection and subcutaneous and intramuscular injections. Training is rotated and performed by various keepers, along with veterinary staff members, to build flexibility into the program.
Benefits of condition training to animal health have already been realized at White Oak. The male tiger recently had an acute medical condition. Ultrasound revealed multiple masses in the bladder. Behavioral training made it possible for the animal to be loaded into a crate and transported to the University of Florida, College of Veterinary Medicine with minimal stress. The male tiger was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma of the bladder. After a successful surgery, conditioning in the crate continued without difficulties. Phlebotomy is currently being done once per week to monitor his medical condition during chemotherapy.
Operant conditioning has proven to be an excellent management tool for tigers at White Oak Conservation Center. It is an extremely effective, reliable, and successful alternative to anesthesia or manual restraint and prepares the animals and staff for medical or management challenges in the future.
I would like to express gratitude to Nancy Businga and Cyd Shields Teare, along with the rest of the White Oak Conservation Center Staff, for their continued commitment towards advancing the standards of animal care, and their dedication to the conservation of wildlife. I would also like to thank Joann Zeliff for being my continued mentor.
1. Dumonceaux G, Burton M, Ball R, Demuth A. Veterinary procedures facilitated by behavioral conditioning and desensitization in reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) and Nile hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). In: Proceedings of the Joint Conference of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians and the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians. 1998:388–391.
2. Kinzley C. Restraint facilities and operant conditioning in large land mammals. In: Proceedings of the American Association of Zoos, Parks and Aquariums. 1993:97–101.
3. Reichard T, Shellabarger W. Training for husbandry and medical purposes. In: Proceedings of the American Association of Zoos, Parks and Aquariums. 1992:396–402.