If you visit Wegeforth Bowl at the San Diego Zoo to see the animal show, you may be treated to watching a sea lion swim, a lynx pounce, or a serval cat leap. These amazing behaviors performed on cue are the result of the many hours of training put in by our dedicated animal behavior staff. Training is key to the success of our animal shows and presentations. Training is also instrumental in animal care and management. On a stroll through the Zoo, you might notice a keeper asking a lion to rub her side against a fence or asking an ape to present his hand or chest. Training is going on everywhere at the Zoo, with animals from great apes to meerkats. Not only can it make life on exhibit much easier for both the animal and its keeper, it is also enriching. Working with a baby animal allows us the unique opportunity to start training at an early and impressionable age. The behaviors young Boris, our newest reindeer, learns to display in his Zoo environment now will help us manage him as an adult reindeer. (See previous post, Boris Learns Reindeer Games.)
Training animals like Boris to become familiar with things like weighing platforms, crates, loading ramps, trainers, and hoof-trimming tools helps prepare them for routine care and management. To introduce Boris to some of these management practices, we began working on a few training basics. Foot and hoof care is occasionally necessary in adult hoofed animals. We wanted to teach Boris to be calm and quiet when having his feet handled, so we began by gently touching his legs and feet. When he was little, Boris made us laugh with his extreme reaction to any fly that might buzz around his legs. Poor Boris reacted to one single fly as if it were a swarm of 10,000, so we weren’t surprised when his first response to our touch was to stomp and snort, trying to escape our fingers. To him, our hands might as well have been a giant fly coming to get him. Aaack! Thankfully, with practice and gentle repetition, Boris learned to stand quietly and eventually even lifted his feet when his hooves were touched.
Another important part of animal care and health is monitoring body weight. To collect the reindeer’s weights, a large wooden platform was set up on top of a scale in the reindeer’s back area. When the adult reindeer walks onto the platform, the keeper can record each animal’s body weight without causing any stress to the animal. Boris had to learn to step up onto the weigh platform just like the adults. We encouraged him to step up onto the platform by using his bottle as the dangling carrot. On his first try, Boris stepped up onto the platform as if he’d done it a thousand times before. No problem for this little guy!
Some training days that were especially fun for Boris were also a comedic scene for us to witness. One day, when a trailer was available, we backed it up to the reindeer pens and opened the door so that Boris could walk in. He walked up and down the loading ramp and sniffed around exploring the big “new thing.” Boris showed no fear. He quickly made a game of the new thing and trotted up and down the ramp leading into the trailer as if he had claimed it as his new fort. He had conquered his first trailer session with ease.
Boris has proven to be a diligent and eager student. His training will be a continued and significant part of his life in our zoo. Although he still has much to learn, he has done very well with his sessions thus far, and we are very proud of him.
Kim Wiebel is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.