Training For Conservation

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

This week interns had the opportunity to meet Nicki Boyd, an animal behaviorist who has been working at the Zoo for 23 years. Ms. Boyd is the Behavior Husbandry Manager at the Zoo, where she runs the training program for all different types of animals. The program’s mission is to advance animal welfare using operant conditioning with an emphasis on positive reinforcement. Training animals is a very long process, where patience is key. As an animal behaviorist, Ms. Boyd is very important to the conservation effort the San Diego Zoo partakes in. The training program plays a crucial role in the welfare of the animals at the Zoo, and how they are able to use their research to help animal populations in the wild.

Ms. Boyd’s first big training project was with the red pandas, where she was able to train them for research and medical purposes. By being able to open their mouths on command, veterinarians were able to check their dental health, and figure out if a broken tooth was the cause of unusual behavior. By training the red pandas to be comfortable with undergoing an ultrasound, it gave keepers and veterinarians an opportunity to prepare for the coming arrival of a newborn. Additionally, Ms. Boyd trained the red pandas to be relaxed while taking their measurements. Their measurements showed a correlation between the red panda’s demeanor and size. The keepers found they were breeding smaller and smaller because the larger ones tended to be more dominant. The smaller, more placid red pandas were the ones chosen for breeding.

Besides working with red pandas, Ms. Boyd also works with training service animals at the Zoo. Not only are dogs a man’s best friend but they are also a cheetah’s. Many cheetahs at the Zoo encounter guests for educational purposes, and for 35 years, the Zoo has paired dogs with cheetahs. To pair these animals, the dogs meet the cheetah as a newborn, in order to create a close, special bond. The role these canines play in the well being of the cheetahs is that they supply comfort, and set an example for the cheetah to follow. An example that Ms. Boyd gave us was that when cheetahs are brought to a new environment like a television station, the companion dog is able to set the mood for the cheetah. These companion dogs are desensitized to loud noises and foreign environments, which comforts the cheetah in stressful situations. When you normally think of service animals you think of guide dogs, police dogs, and detection dogs that help our community; but never their role in conservation of the cheetahs at the Zoo.

Other efforts by the Zoo include working with the US Geological Survey researching the current decline of the polar bear population as related to climate change. To do this, the Zoo is currently studying the movements of Tatqiq, a 520 lb female polar bear, by putting a tracking collar on her. Before they could start collecting data, Tatqiq needed to go through a training process to help her feel comfortable with an object on her neck. Initially, Tatqiq started with a fake piece of seaweed as a makeshift collar. Keepers, with food as an incentive, led Tatqiq to a training chute where she had to put her head through the collar to receive food. By doing this, it made the collar feel less foreign to her. Throughout this training process, the mock collar then made of zip ties, got tighter and tighter. However, she could always take it off if necessary. The data that she transmits back to the researchers will enable them to compare her movements with wild polar bears. Climate change is causing polar bears to travel further in search of food and mates, thus exerting more energy than necessary, causing a decline in birthrate. Ms. Boyd explained to us that the data collected may give evidence that climate change is a growing issue and could be the cause of the population decrease of this magnificent animal.

Humans working with animals are able to make a huge contribution towards the conservation effort. With training and patience, animal behaviorists like Ms. Boyd are able to communicate with a wild animal making a safe environment for both trainer and animal. Once trained, animals like Tatqiq or service animals are able to make a huge impact by collecting data or enhancing an animal’s well being.

Julianna, Conservation Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2015