See Kim’s previous post, Reindeer Baby Boris Grows Up.
The next big step in Boris’ social introduction was encouraging him to live in the main exhibit with the herd. To help make his move successful, we set up a “creep” for Boris. A creep is a small, safe pen, similar to a “howdy pen,” where a young animal can go to escape the herd and also meet his keepers for bottles.
To train young animals like Boris to come to their caretakers for bottle feedings, we use a method called clicker training. Once a young animal is nursing reliably, we begin using a clicker, clicking it once before offering the bottle and once again while the animal is actively nursing from it. By repeating this at each feeding, the animal learns to associate the sound of the clicker with bottle feedings/food. Training a young animal to respond to the clicker allows him to live with his own kind, where he learns important social skills and herd etiquette while still receiving bottle feedings from his keepers.
Boris quickly learned that clicker equals dinner and bounded across the exhibit to meet his keeper at the creep. After draining his bottle, and bumping his keeper for more, he’d saunter out of the creep, back onto the exhibit, looking back a few times just to make sure he hadn’t missed any milk.
Just like his wild cousins, one of the things Boris learned about reindeer life was the importance of moving with the herd. On the wild tundra, the large number of herd members help keep a baby safe from predators. At the San Diego Zoo, Boris learned about life with the reindeer herd in his new home.
Part of a keeper’s day includes servicing the exhibit. In order to clean and distribute fresh food, water, and enrichment items, the reindeer keeper moves the herd into holding pens at the top of the exhibit.
Boris learned to move into the reindeer barns with the herd when his keeper calls and charges out ahead of them when released. He does this with great enthusiasm, proving that he is an official experienced member of the group. Boris joins in the reindeer game of “What’s new out here today?”, bounding about exploring the hillsides looking for browse treats. Boris is especially fond of water and can be seen splashing around in the pond making a muddy mess out of both the pond and himself.
Kim Weibel is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.
Listen to Boris as he calls to his keeper.[audio:http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/sounds/reindeer.mp3]