Things are Looking Up

Animal care at its finest

Zoo keepers patiently taught Fred the giraffe to touch
his nose to a buoy on a stick. This target training
helped them get clear x-rays of his skull.

BY Karyl Carmignani

Photography by Ken Bohn

With patience, collaboration, ingenuity, and a bucket of leaf eater biscuits, Fred, a four-year-old giraffe at the Zoo, has been trained to participate in a diagnostic imaging procedure without anesthesia. Keepers noticed he had nasal discharge, so veterinarians were notified, and together they are treating the issue. Radiographs of his mighty skull could reveal dental, bone, and soft tissue abnormalities that could be causing the problem, but how to best get a crisp x-ray image of his head perched 14 feet above the ground?

Curators, vets, keepers, and registered vet techs (RVTs) collaborated to devise a training program to enable them to get x-rays without having to anesthetize Fred. “Radiographs are a vital part of understanding an animal’s medical issues,” explained Meredith Reid, RVT at the San Diego Zoo. “Training Fred to allow this noninvasive procedure is instrumental to managing his long-term health.”

Tall, smart, and handsome: Fred is an enthusiastic participant in his own health care.

Getting Started

Using positive reinforcement (a reward-based system), target training began with a buoy attached to the end of a pole, and a keeper with a whistle in her mouth and some biscuits on her hip. The target was positioned next to Fred’s face, and when he touched his nose to it, the keeper gave a quick burst of her whistle, to bridge from the desired behavior to the reward, and then gave him a tasty biscuit. As a ruminant, Fred’s training had to also reinforce not chewing or licking the target, which he conquered fairly quickly.

Gradually, the target was moved a bit farther and lower from Fred, and he was rewarded for touching it. Training sessions were 10 to 15 minutes long and occurred 1 to 3 times per day for about 9 weeks. Fred always had the option to participate or walk away at any time.

Zoo keepers, registered vet techs, and veterinarians all worked together on developing the best way to collect radiographs of Fred’s skull in the most noninvasive way possible. Fred was a willing partner!

Baby Steps

Once Fred was lowering his head to the target and holding the position for a few seconds, staff created a mock-up situation of the actual radiograph event. A used x-ray plate (about 12 by 18 inches) was attached to a pole that was bolted to a brick on the ground. Meredith held up an empty fruit crate to simulate the 25-pound portable x-ray machine, and extension cords were on the ground, as the computer used to read the radiographs would have to be plugged in. The staff was clad in the light green x-ray gowns, which look different from their usual khaki attire. “We had to take baby steps,” said Meredith, “as he used to be afraid of the x-ray gowns, but he’s used to them now.” The goal is to get him desensitized to all of the equipment used for the procedure and all the additional staff around, so he will be calm and comfortable when the radiographs are taken.

Zoo keepers patiently coaxed Fred to lower his head to the x-ray plate and hold still so radiographs could be taken of his skull.

A Big Help

Giraffes are skittish by nature, so it’s important to build Fred’s trust and let him decide if he wants to participate. Anesthetizing a giraffe can be a difficult and potentially dangerous undertaking, so investing the time and training into husbandry behaviors advances our animal care and welfare standards. Keepers are also target training the other four giraffes in Fred’s herd for husbandry purposes.

Fred’s x-rays are helping veterinarians keep an eye on his sinus problems and give him the best care. “Getting giraffe radiographs as a baseline will also benefit other giraffes down the line,” said Meredith. “It’s good to establish radiograph ‘normals’ to compare over time, to best monitor their health.” A healthy giraffe is a happy giraffe!