Flamingo Preschool

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Ms. Duryee with Caribbean flamingos

Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. Read the Zoo InternQuest Journal and view the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

There are countless opportunities to work with animals at the Zoo, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more hands-on job than animal training. Senior animal trainer Maureen Duryee was generous enough to let us take a peek into what is involved in the life of an animal trainer.

As we arrived, Ms. Duryee led us behind an exhibit in the Zoo’s Urban Jungle and handed each of us a plastic cup full of dog food soaking in water. We were going to feed 12 Caribbean flamingos! These youngsters are about nine months old and are currently part of the Backstage Pass program. As the birds ate, Ms. Duryee explained that she is a teacher in a sort of flamingo “preschool”.  In this  “preschool” environment, animal trainers like Ms. Duryee teach the young flamingos to have good manners and to interact with the public. Nine months may seem young for a bird that can live up to 50 years, but when I stood up, some of the flamingos were already looking at me eye-to-eye! When they “grow up” to be five or six feet tall they’ll have outgrown me.

The flamingos weren’t the only birds that we visited: Ms. Duryee also introduced us to Crikey the laughing kookaburra. He obligingly showed off his “laughing” ability for us over and over again! Crikey participates in Backstage Pass and was glad to see his friend, Ms. Duryee. In fact, he was so glad to see her that he demonstrated kookaburra courting behaviors when she offered him his treats. For those of you who don’t know, that involves force-feeding your love interests favorite foods such as mealworms and pinkie mice. Yum!  Fortunately for Ms. Duryee, she recognized his behavior and stepped out of the exhibit before he could put his plans in motion.

While not every animal tries to court their trainer, there is a delicate relationship between trainer and animal. “Everything you do is saying something,” Ms. Duryee said. Whenever a human raises a hand, steps closer or speaks, those behaviors are being interpreted by the animals they’re in contact with. One wrong move can easily break the trust of a shy animal. Ms. Duryee shared with us how long it has taken to get the young flamingos used to being around humans. At the beginning, the trainers couldn’t move towards the flamingos. All contact had to be initiated by the birds. It has taken a lot of time and patience, but now the dominant male flamingo, Gobbles, will allow himself to be held and touched by the trainers.

How does all this pay off?  Having the Zoo’s animals trained properly protects the keepers, as in the case of a large carnivore that is trained to move off exhibit without coming into unprotected contact with a keeper. It pays off for the animals: the time spent with their trainers is often the best part of their day. Through programs like Backstage Pass, the animals can also give back to Zoo guests! Whether it’s feeding a flamingo or laughing along with Crikey the kookaburra, people from around the world can come to the Zoo and take home their own special animal experience, thanks to the hard work and patience of the Zoo’s animal trainers.

Amy, Careers team