Zookeepers get very attached to our animals. We provide their daily care and for some, so much more. Tuya, our young Bactrian camel, needed much more. We provided it happily, and because of this she has grown to be about 500 pounds at almost 9 months of age (see previous post, Baby Camel: Accepted). Along with the happiness always comes the day when the animal has to make a journey to another zoo. Tuya’s father, Mongo, will be staying with us. This means that Tuya will need to be sent away to be part of a breeding herd.
I received this news about a month ago and have been preparing for her departure. When animals leave the San Diego Zoo, they must have a pre-shipment physical to make sure they are healthy and there are no issues before they head out. Tuya is very used to all types of tactile handling, so most of the veterinarian’s requests would be easy to accommodate. But just to make sure, we set up a chute in case Tuya decided to kick, a normal reaction from a camel of any age, but expected from one so young. The chute is just two corral panels about 10 feet long and 5 feet high and made of metal bars. The camel steps into this chute, and the vet has full access to the animal by reaching through the bars while keeping safe from camel kicks. Tuya had never been in a chute before, so I began training to get her used to it.
At first I just stood in the corral with her and rewarded her with a treat when she was calm. Slowly we made our way closer to the chute. She ran away kicking three times before walking into it. And this is no normal kick or two. It is the full-on happy camel dance with legs flailing in all directions. It makes me laugh every time I see it! Finally she decided it was okay to sniff the chute. I rewarded her for every few steps she took into the chute, using a “target” for her to touch to receive her reward. The target we use is a small pool buoy on a stick that we use to move animals from one point to another. With the camels I ask them to “target,” which means to touch the target with their nose. Usually this means they have to walk a few steps to reach the target; once they touch it calmly they are given food reinforcement.
Tuya did quite well for her first time. We spent a few more days taking it slow, and then I decided to put her halter on and walk her into the chute. I still used the target, which gave her something to concentrate on. If I didn’t, she usually wound up getting excited and running away.
Once comfortably in the chute, I rewarded her for calm behavior and had another keeper start touching her legs, head, belly, etc.—anywhere the vet might want to examine her to make sure she is healthy. As long as she had her camel chow pellets, she was good. I kept the sessions short so as to keep them a positive and always-rewarding experience for her.
Next time I’ll update you on her physical and how the whole procedure went. She is definitely a healthy and happy camel!
Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.