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Monkey Business: Natural and Learned Behavior in Capuchins

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What's more fun than a barrel of monkeys?
TRAINING a barrel of monkeys!

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums training list lets zoo keepers ask each other training questions. The following post appeared on that list as a response to a question by a new keeper, someone who was trying to train a small group of primates for health and care-related behavior. Here at KPCT, we thought the response was a wonderful example of training that combines both ethology and operant conditioning: working with the innate behavior of the species which is governed by evolution, and with shaping and reinforcement and their individual learning skills.

The author of the post is Karla Butler, a keeper at The Living Desert in Palm Desert, California. The work she describes was done at Moorpark College, as part of Karla's assignments during Moorpark's two year training program in professional exotic animal management.

Karen Pryor


Karla Butler: Monkeying around

A few years ago I was a part of a training team that worked with a troupe of seven Capuchins. We had great success training them to station and to go into a squeeze box for immobilization. There were five of us in the group. I don't know if having more than one trainer is possible for you, but this is what we did:

We found that not only did the troupe have a hierarchy, but they perceived us as being a part of the hierarchy as well. We all tried to work with each primate at first (just giving them treats for a couple of minutes), but each primate chose which one of us it would work for. As an example, the dominant male worked with me the best. We believed it was because I was not dominant in our group; I was the most soft spoken and "feminine." He was not threatened by me and worked well because I asked "nicely."

Once each primate had decided who it would work for, they had to establish where in the exhibit they would work. The dominant male had to be stationed near the #1 and #2 females. The females had to be slightly beneath the dominant male. The subordinate male had to be stationed almost near the ground and on the opposite side from the females. This took some time to establish.

When we began each session, the primates had to be stationed in order of rank. Dominant male eats first and so on. As soon as we were out of food, we would end the session all at once. Communication within the human group was crucial. We needed to know how much food everyone had in order to end together. We used a verbal bridge and their favorite food from their diet for the session.

We worked with the Capuchins for about a year and a half and many things affected the training. One thing there was no getting past was when one of the females would cycle. When that occurred, we had to improvise. The other issue was changes in the hierarchy, including in our hierarchy. The primates knew when we had issues among ourselves.

It was ongoing work with them. Their social and individual behavior dictated most of our decisions. It was however, one of the most educational and fulfilling experiences of my training career.

—Karla Butler


About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.


With all the recent talk about dominance not being so important with dogs, it's interesting to read a post about animals who are more like us socially.  I think it's really interesting that the primates knew when the humans 'had issues' amoung themselves.

Thanks for that interesting article,


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