While studying biology at the University of Massachusetts, I dedicated several years working closely with two captive, juvenile American alligators. In order for these stereotypically aggressive creatures to be utilized for classroom demonstrations, I developed a training system to make the process a little easier and, hopefully, safer! Upon my graduation, the training resulted in the alligators being able to discriminate between “attack” versus “stay” stimuli, making them a bit more predictable for the handlers.
After having a successful trial run at the University, I wanted to try similar training here at the San Diego Zoo with a female Chinese alligator named Xidi (pronounced Shee-Dee). The opportunity to begin target training on completely different alligator species is exciting! Throughout the next several months, I will be posting updates on my progression with Xidi in hopes that one day she is trained to “sit,” metaphorically, of course.
Since Xidi is a fully grown female, roughly 16 years old, I will be taking baby steps with her to challenge the cliché of not being able to teach an old dog a new trick. Previously, Xidi was fed anywhere from once a month to once a week, depending on climate conditions. Now, we will be feeding her three times a week using portion control for training progress. A dark blue circle will be used for feeding and a yellow circle for not feeding. It is unclear if alligators can discriminate colors, but they can differentiate among shades (light and dark).
Jeremy Fontaine is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.