Training animals is one of my favorite things to do as a zookeeper. We get to spend extra time with them and get to enjoy the challenge of teaching the animals an action we want them to do. With most training at the Zoo, we try to keep the “cues” (the word and hand signal to tell the animal what to do) fairly the same for all of our carnivores. We use both a word cue and a hand signal when asking for a behavior in case there is a language barrier or an older animal is losing its hearing or sight. After a cue is presented, we use a “bridge” (the signal that a reward is coming). For the bridge we use the word “good” or a clicker.
Panda youngster Yun Zi has a long list of behaviors he knows or is currently learning. Many of them are easy ones, and a few are more complex. He knows:
Target (touch his nose to keeper’s fist)
Down (lay down)
Touch (to touch his paws and nails)
Open (mouth open)
Side (lay on his side)
Roll (roll over, both directions)
Inside (shifting into a bedroom)
Over (to move to the other side of a door)
Follow (following, while walking in the tunnel)
Out Out (to go onto exhibit)
He is working on the following cues:
Paw (put his paw through the blood-draw sleeve)
Hearing study (touching the red circle when he hears a tone played)
Most of these behaviors are standard for all three pandas here at the San Diego Zoo, with the exception of “Roll.” This is a great behavior to teach an animal so you can see his or her entire body, and this is a fun one for Yun Zi. The next time you visit Panda Trek, watch for when the keepers are done cleaning the exhibit, and you might catch a short training session with one of the bears.
Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi Training.