In my previous post, I introduced you to Zahari (Zari, for short), our young Grant’s zebra (see Little Zebra Zahari). She is a participating member of our family of critters that is a part of the San Diego Zoo’s Backstage Pass program, and her training is an ongoing process. Many consider zebras stubborn and difficult to train, so our daily interactions are critical. Every day we brush her, clean her hooves, and practice her learned behaviors as well as work on new ones.
Zari has learned to go to a designated “mark” in her enclosure, a platform that is 4 feet by 6 feet (1.2 by 1.8 meters) and is 2 inches (5 centimeters) high. She has also learned to “target” a giant plastic apple on the far side of her paddock. To “target” means she touches her nose to the target object when asked. Zari also knows how to roll a small barrel with her nose on cue and will circle right and circle left. All of these behaviors are done off lead. After each correct response, she is reinforced with small pieces of carrot or alfalfa pellets as well as pats and rubs in her favorite spots. All these interactions help to build our bond, as well as increase our communication skills.
But Zari’s most favorite activity is when we turn her loose to run. We are so grateful to the many Zoo keepers willing to share enclosures so Zari gets a chance to kick up her heels. Of course, the animals that live in these exhibits are shifted out for the short time Zari exercises. The giraffes all seem to enjoy watching Zari galloping around their pen. Sometimes we walk her over to the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. There she gets to run in the pronghorn exhibit or the camel paddock. Just like the giraffes, all the animals eagerly watch Zari run and play. Often, the donkeys hee-haw at her, and she calls back to them; her vocals sound like a blending of the donkey bray and a horse’s nicker!
If you happen to be visiting the Zoo some morning, you just might get a chance to see a very special animal doing what she likes best.
Louella Miller is an animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.