About Author: Louella Miller

Posts by Louella Miller


Yikes, Stripes!

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.


Little Zebra Zahari

Keeper Tom Sica introduces Zahari to a group.

Keeper Tom Sica introduces Zahari to a group.

Hey, did you hear that the San Diego Zoo’s Backstage Pass program has “earned its stripes”? That’s right! Our family now includes a zebra; her name is Zahari. We usually just call her Zari. She is a beautiful little Grant’s zebra, which is the smallest of the plains zebra species. When full grown, Zari should be around 48 inches tall (1.2 meters) at the withers and close to 500 pounds (226 kilograms). But right now she is still a youngster at only 16 months old and does not quite tip the scale at 400 pounds (184 kilograms).

Do not think zebras are just horses with a fancy paint job. That would be like saying a leopard is just a big house cat! Zebras are exotic animals that are trained to be comfortable around people. We never consider them to be tame. Zebras are notorious for being difficult to train, but Zari is proving to be the exception to that thought.

We were fortunate to begin her training as soon as she arrived in at the Zoo. All new animals have a quarantine period at the Zoo hospital. The talented hospital keepers immediately started teaching Zari to wear a halter, be touched all over for grooming, and allow her feet to be picked up. Zari became especially attached to Lead Hospital Keeper Tom Sica. When she was cleared from quarantine, Tom was able to make her transition to her behind-the-scenes home an easy one. It takes a “herd” to raise a zebra. And although Tom remains her “dad,” she now has lots of aunties, too!

You might see the “herd” out for a stroll on Zoo grounds; we try to get Zari out for a walk every day. But your best opportunity to get an up-close-and-personal visit is to join us at Backstage Pass. Come and earn your stripes!

Louella Miller is an animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Two-toed Sloth Training.


Orph the Badger

badger_orphThe Backstage Pass program at the San Diego Zoo has added a new member to its star-studded cast. As far as leading men go, this critter is not one of the typical ones you might think of when you hear that title. Instead, he would be along the lines of a Danny Devito or Joe Pecsi. He’s the punky little street fighter type: a North American badger!

Louella brings Orph close to Backstage Pass participants.

Louella brings Orph close to Backstage Pass participants.

His name is Orph, and Zoo members might remember him from the former Wild Ones show at the Zoo’s Hunte Amphitheatre. He only weighs in at 25 pounds (11 kilograms), but badgers are a BIG package of ferocious tenacity! North American badgers can be found throughout the prairies, savannas, and woodlands of North America. They are omnivores that will eat most anything edible, plant or animal. Their two- inch-long (5-centimeter-long) claws allow them to dig faster than a human with a shovel. They resemble a throw pillow with short stout legs, but that is just the right shape for living in burrows.

Now if you run into one of these beasties while out camping, you need to give it a wide berth. But make your way over to Backstage Pass and you can safely see one up close. You’ll also learn the incredible story of how Orph came to join our stellar cast of rock stars!

Louella Miller is an animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Two-toed Sloth Training.


Two-toed Sloth Training

In the comfort and safety of managed care, a two-toed sloth can live 30 years! So at the San Diego Zoo’s Hunte Amphitheater, we have concentrated on a slow, solid training plan with Majica, our two-toed sloth (see previous blog, Meet Our Two-toed Sloth). We began by building a good relationship with her. Once she was comfortable with us, we target-trained her. This is teaching her to touch her nose to our fist or the end of a target stick. You start up very close, only requiring her to move a few inches to connect with the target. Gradually you increase the distance, so eventually you can have her move anywhere you might want her to go.

Majica caught on quickly. She surprised us all when she started reaching out with a paw to pull the target stick to her nose. Since she knew the target was supposed to touch her nose, why not save energy by bringing the target to herself instead of herself to the target! Pretty clever, huh?

So we had reached the first goal of our training plan. But we still needed to develop a manner in which to respect her comfort levels yet move her out of her enclosure to share with Zoo guests. Remember, she does not like to be picked up or touched much. We had tried loading her onto a branch held between trainers. She did not like this mode of transportation: she would rush to one side or the other to disembark. This would put a trainer in harm’s way from those long claws and big teeth. Time to get more creative!

Majica sleeps in a milk crate. It resembles the crook of a tree in which she might sleep in the wild. It is her safety zone. The open holes in a milk crate give her good spaces to climb in and out with those long claws. After a lot of brainstorming we came up with a sloth taxi! We designed a large carrier crate that had an elevated milk crate built in. The crate is like one you might use for your dog with a top and bottom half. We stationed the bottom half of the crate, which had the built-in milk crate, in Majica’s enclosure. She immediately started sleeping in her new “taxi.”

Now we are in the process of teaching her to be comfortable being lifted off the shelf her crate is sitting on and placed upon a wheeled cart. The plan is to place the top half of the crate over the bottom half holding Majica and roll the cart onto stage. Once there we will have her climb out onto a branch for all to see this most unique animal.

Louella Miller is an animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch video of Louella working with Majica, posted January 21, 2009


Meet Our Two-toed Sloth



One of the most curious animals you could imagine will be a resident of the new Elephant Odyssey habitat at the San Diego Zoo. It lives virtually its entire life way up in the treetops, upside down. It only travels down to ground level about once a week to use the “bathroom”! But it will not be the first of its species to live at the Zoo. It is the marvelously odd two-toed sloth, and one has been living behind the scenes at the Hunte Amphitheater show area for some time now. I am one of the trainers fortunate enough to work with this unique animal.

There are basically two types of sloth. Our sloth, Majica, is a two-toed sloth; there is also a three-toed sloth. This name designation refers to how many “toes” are on their front paws. Both species have three toes on the rear feet. But when you look at a sloth you will wonder where the toes are! Each foot ends with 2- to 3-inch (50- to 76-millimeter) curving claws with no obvious “toes” to be seen. From our research, we found out that the three-toed sloth is rather docile. We saw video clips of people plucking wild ones right out of a tree and easily handling them. But the two-toed sloth is much more defensive. They do not like to be handled, and use those front claws like a Ginsu chef! They also have very big dagger-like cheek teeth. It was quite clear it was going to be a challenge to find a way to share this wonderful animal with Zoo guests in shows and at special events.

While working out a training plan, we spent the time learning about our new “family” member. At first, Majica did not like to be touched…period. But soon she was allowing us to touch and inspect most of her body for a fresh sprig of Eugenia. As we have built a relationship with her, she is becoming more comfortable with our light touches. She even began to respond to us calling her name when we entered her enclosure. She comes out of her nest box to greet us.

One of the most interesting behaviors we have witnessed is her “rain dance.” Whenever it starts to rain, she does laps around the roof of her pen! This is the only time she does this. And she maneuvers around her pen at a speed you would not expect of a sloth.

It has been exciting learning about this most unusual animal, and we have developed a training plan that will enable us to share her with others up close and personal.

Louella Miller is an animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.