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Operant Conditioning at the Zoo

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Earlier this month I was in Austin and Dallas Texas for a series of scientific meetings. A group of keepers at the Dallas Zoo invited me to come to the zoo and see some of the training they are doing; so I extended my visit a day and went to the zoo.

Many zoos are now using operant conditioning to improve the wellbeing of their animals. Targeting enables keepers to move animals around without frightening them. Clicker training provides mental and physical stimulation, enriches the animals' lives, and can even save lives. (Once upon a time zoo animals had to be immobilized with a dart gun to get medical treatment. There's some risk involved-it's hard to judge the dosage-and the animals universally hate the experience, and often exhibit extreme stress which of course skews the results of any blood tests you might want to take). Now clicker training enables zoo vets and keepers to weigh the animals regularly, and to perform annual physicals, vaccinations, pregnancy exams, blood draws, hoof care, and treatment for illness, with the calm cooperation of their patients.

The Dallas Zoo is a good example of a zoo in transition, from the old view that you should not interfere with the animals in any way, to an awareness of the clicker technology and its usefulness. California zoo training experts Tim Desmond and Gale Laule, of Active Environments, Inc., started an operant program with the Dallas Zoo elephants. Gradually the same positive training techniques are spreading through the zoo, with keepers learning on their own and helping each other. Here's what the keepers showed me:

Val Beardsley and Bonnie Hendrickson invited me into the chimp house. With clicks, praise, verbal cues, and treats, Val showed me how she can take temps with an ear sensor, file nails, inspect teeth ("Open wide!"), ask the chimps to present a shoulder or hip for injections, and position their hands, feet, and bodies wherever she needs them to be. Besides the treats it is obvious fun for the chimps and they politely wait their turn to play doctor.

We hopped in the golf cart and went behind the scenes to the holding barn for Tut, a Caracal. A caracal turns out to be an African desert cat of about thirty pounds (think cocker spaniel), sand-covered all over, with the most amazing black and white tufted ears. Keeper Kristin Streebel showed me Tut's daily training routine. He works for verbal cues, clicks and meat treats (passed through the cage mesh on a stick-he's quick and he bites.) Tut turned now and then to hiss at me and my video camera, but he never quit working. Great clicker cat.

Here's what Tut can do: sit, down, spin, high paws, come, get on the scales, and "shift:" i.e., dash through the door into the next enclosure. Tut spends his nights in the barn and his days outside where the monorail passengers can see him. So he needs to shift reliably, and he does. At about 1000 miles an hour. For a click and a treat.

Then Megan Lumpkin showed off several of the zoo's okapi herd. I have always loved okapis, a very rare animal now (Ituri Forest Congo cousin of the giraffe) about the size of a horse, with big dark eyes and huge furry ears and long, long tongues. A young female came into the barn and put her nose on a target (a piece of pipe) held by one keeper, while another keeper touched her back and sides and gave a simulated injection in the haunch.

We visited a mother okapi and calf outdoors in the sunshine. Mama showed that she could stand patiently to have her hooves cleaned and cared for. Baby showed that he could buck, run, jump, kick, lick at my camera lens, and try to sneak out an open gate. Like domestic horses, all hooved stock in zoos tend to need regular hoof trimming and cleaning, since their hooves don't wear down the way they would in the wild. Only in the last decade, with the rise of simple clicker technology that keepers can learn by themselves, are these hooved animals beginning to get that care.

Keepers don't often get time to visit other parts of the zoo and see other training in action, so throughout the day I had two or three zoo staff members with me, grabbing the chance to watch other trainers in action. Our next stop was the elephant barn. Traditionally, as with horses, trainers have managed elephants by physically pushing them around. They control the elephants largely with positive and negative punishment, negative reinforcement, and social dominance. It takes skill and practice, and it can be very dangerous; when elephants get mad, keepers can get killed. Clicker training has made it possible to care for elephants through a partition, with clicker and treats, a system called ‘protected contact.' It is easier on everyone.

A beautiful African elephant, Jenny, and her keeper Audra Cooke, showed us how Jenny targets and stations for injections and other care. She presents each foot, through a gap in the bars, for foot care and trimming; and she can flare her magnificent ears on the cue, "Ears!" She lost her cool, once, and squealed and whirled away from us, tramping her front feet nervously. (Audrey thought she was nervous about exposing her hind feet with several strangers in the barn.) In the old days that would have provoked a stern response from the keeper. Now Audrey just waited a few seconds, safely on her side of the partition, until Jenny calmed down and came back for more clicks.

There was lots more. The warthogs, homely but charming, targeted and accepted lots of body contact, from simulated injections to petting. Mrs. Warthog seemed to like having her foot-long head hair combed and played with, and Mr. Warthog actually lay down to better enjoy a belly rub.

The rhinos are all target trained, foot-care tame, and willing to have any part of themselves, including inside the mouth, inspected and treated. I borrowed a target and trained one of the rhinos, and scratched it behind the ears, which it accepted (along with some banana segments) with a pleasant look.

Best of all, though, were the tigers. Jay Pratte, the tiger keeper who had organized this whole busman's holiday, took me to the tiger barn-a Maximum Security Triple Door Lock-down type residence-where he and Sherri Falls put two male Sumatran tigers through their paces. Shift. Come. Down. Swing your tail under the bars. Scootch forward so I can reach your tail. Stay, while I sterilize your tail with alcohol and give you a pretend--or real--injection. Back up. Click. Thank you, you may go.

The tigers LOVE this and rush to their training stations, grring and rumbling, but, like the rhinos, with pleasant faces. Their favorite behavior-and mine-seemed to be "Up." The keeper stands with his or her hands as high on the mesh as they will go. And the tiger, in a lightning move, stands in a matching pose, with front paws over his head on the mesh, on the other side. Jay Pratte is a tall man. But the tiger is a lot taller. An impressive creature to have for a friend.

Throughout my travel, even while giving scientific presentations in my best black suit, I wore a black and silver lanyard clicker as jewelry. Looks great! Don't leave home without one. And now my necklace has clicked a rhinoceros.

New This Month:

Our video Clicker Magic is on sale at $24.95, down from $39.95, through St Patrick's Day.! Order Here

Next Month:

I am going on the road again. We are planning major clicker events for next fall and winter. There will be people from every area of clicker training and science, including zoo clicker trainers, for you to meet. Stay in touch. E-mail and website announcements will be going out in April.

To learn more about training elephants:


About zoo training in general:


A rich source of scientific articles about zoo animals and behavioral enrichment


The Zoo trainers' Animal Behavior Management Association website: training tips, upcoming conferences and more:

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.

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