Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!
While no one has been able to find a way to make small talk with animals, residents of the San Diego Zoo communicate with humans every day. Keepers and trainers are able to ask animals to perform behaviors which simplify medical procedures, advance scientific research, and provide mental stimulation. Overseeing many of the larger training projects is Nicki Boyd, Behavior Husbandry Manager, who the inerns got to meet this week.
Trainer Talk 101: Ms. Boyd explained how nonverbal cues like these hand signals are “the closest thing to actually speaking to an animal.” Each hand signal represents a different behavior, and part of Ms. Boyd’s job is to ensure that these gestures are clearly communicated. In the five years since Ms. Boyd has been in her current position, behavior-based language—like these hand signals—has become more unified across the Zoo, reducing confusion between departments. Since Ms. Boyd oversees all of the major training projects, it is imperative that every keeper is able to easily communicate their strategies with her.
Although many may already have backgrounds in animal training, every new keeper is given the run-down on the Zoo’s animal training strategies and protocol. The Zoo employs operant conditioning, where the animal’s responses are all voluntary reactions (sorry, Pavlov’s dogs can’t explain this one), focusing on positive reinforcement to reward desired responses. This sort of training builds trust between the animal and its trainer, and it gives both brains a problem-solving workout!
For most of the Zoo’s residents, the sound of jingling keys has unintentionally become a dinner bell. A passing keeper’s clinking keys can signal that an animal’s next meal is being delivered, causing them to hover around their exhibit’s door in anticipation. Ms. Boyd has been working alongside keepers and members of the behavior team to find a solution to this problem. One method they’ve implemented in the mountain lion exhibit utilizes cinnamon scent piped into the exhibit to announce the arrival of dinner, allowing the felines to ignore the sound of keys and instead associate meal time with a specific smell.
Tatqiq the polar bear has been making the news for her contributions to the scientific community this week, wearing a motion-tracking collar so scientists can better understand what bear behaviors are represented by movement data it records. Modeling the training used at the Oregon Zoo for a similar polar bear program, Ms. Boyd worked with the polar bear keepers to overcome the challenges of teaching a bear to wear a 2.5 pound accelerometer. One conflict arose when Tatqiq received dietary reinforcement for slipping her head into a lightweight mock collar: her head would bob up and down as she followed her keeper’s hand to the treat bucket. The problem was solved by letting Tatqiq lick a tasty liquid treat out of a feeding syringe, which could stay in one place while was being rewarded for wearing the collar.
Cheetahs and dogs are an unlikely pair, but friendships like the ones found in the Zoo’s Urban Jungle are part of a 35-year tradition. Since their bodies are built more for speed than strength, cheetahs are naturally more skittish than some of their feline relatives. However, growing up with a “service dog” gives the cheetahs a trustworthy companion. Ms. Boyd explained how daunting crying babies and TV cameras might appear to lone cheetahs. When they see their dog buddies taking human activity in stride, however, they can stay calm.
After learning about the Zoo’s training programs, the interns got to see animal behavior in action in the Children’s Zoo. At Ms. Boyd’s approach, Akela the fennec fox squealed in excitement, running for the door of her exhibit in anticipation of treats and attention. Creating a bond out of positive reinforcement, animals at the Zoo reach a level of trust with their keepers that would be unattainable if punishment techniques were used. Husbandry training gives the Zoo’s animals a great way to show off their intelligence to zoo guests, which can lead to a greater appreciation for the species. Animal ambassadors like Akela fuel the human passion necessary for conservation efforts to be successful.
With her eyes locked on Ms. Boyd’s bin of nutritious morsels of kibble and veggies, Akela shows how food is a great reinforcer for animals. With their instincts keyed in on eating to survive, it’s no doubt that any creature would be motivated to participate in learned behaviors for a tasty treat. However, depending on the species, food doesn’t have to be the sole reward. More social animals, especially those with a close bond with their trainer, appreciate attention as praise for their job well-done. Having non-dietary reward systems in place is especially important in the Zoo, where every animal’s food intake is closely monitored.
Akela’s attentiveness to Ms. Boyd during their training session was a reminder of positive reinforcement’s power to motivate animals to learn. Learning is a natural behavior that animals exhibit in the wild, and the Zoo seeks to give opportunities to every resident to satisfy their instinctual drives through mental stimulation. “Learning is critical to an animal’s survival,” Ms. Boyd explained, giving the reasoning for its application through training in the Zoo. A variety of toys, smells, foods, and training sessions all give an animal the enriching experience it needs to be happy and healthy.
Zoo animals are always given the choice to participate in their training programs, and most oblige. It can take months for an animal to become comfortable enough with a behavior to do it in a medical situation, but all the work pays off when veterinary procedures become simpler and safer. An animal who doesn’t have to undergo anesthesia when having their blood drawn will experience much less stress, saves time, and faces none of the risks of “going under.” Because the Zoo’s elephants are rewarded for participating in their daily foot care, receiving their favorite treats in exchange for presenting their feet, their health can be better managed.
Giving animals choices in their training “makes your life and their lives a lot easier,” Ms. Boyd remarked. Akela demonstrated her freedom of choice by deciding when she was finished with her training session and ready to return home.
From foxes to bears, animals all over the zoo are learning every day. And as they demonstrate their abilities, these animals can teach guests from all over the world to develop a greater appreciation for their species. Their health, happiness, and wild population are all supported by hours of effort from the keepers and trainers working by their sides.
Brianna, Photography Team
Week 2, Winter Session 2015