animal trainer


Playtime for Wolves, Cheetahs, Dogs

Arctic wolf brothers play in the new AAA.

For the first time in the San Diego Zoo’s history, we are able to offer our visitors a chance to view a variety of animal ambassadors on exhibit. These ambassadors, trained to travel to off-site events and special animal presentations, normally live in off-exhibit areas, but through a generous donation we were able to enclose a large area in Urban Jungle that houses cheetahs, domestic dogs, Arctic and gray wolves, and a New Guinea singing dog—not all at the same time, mind you, but most of the time you will see unusual dynamic pairs of animals playing together.

For example, you might find a cheetah paired with a domestic dog, or a large Arctic wolf paired with a very small New Guinea singing dog (sometimes there is no accounting for taste!), or the gray wolf running with his best friend, a golden retriever. There are currently four different dog and cheetah pairs that share the new Animal Ambassador Area (AAA):

– Karroo, female cheetah, and Sven Olof, male blond golden retriever (see Mr. Sven Olaf and Earth Day)
– Kubali, female cheetah, and Bear, male chow mix
– Bakari, male cheetah, and Miley, female husky mix (see Cheetah and Dog Pals)
– Taraji, youngest female cheetah (see Lots of Spots), and Duke, enormous male Anatolian shepherd

Each dog and cheetah pairing enjoys the enclosure a little differently. Miley loves the water and has so much fun playing in the AAA’s pool that one day Bakari decided to join her. Well, he had the shock of a lifetime when he launched into it from an overhanging rock—he had never been in water before and clearly did not share the same joyous feelings about it that Miley had! Nowadays, Bakari hisses at the pond when Miley gets going with all the splashing and bouncing. Duke chooses just to wade in the water for a cool-down period; after all, he spends most of his day chasing the little mighty juvenile cheetah cub, and so far, Taraji lets Duke have his quiet time in the pond alone. One day soon, though, I’m sure Taraji will venture into the pool as well.

Ah, a nice pile of ice!

The beauty of this Animal Ambassador Area is the fact that you never know which animals you’ll meet inside or what you will find them doing! There are three other sets of animals you might see in the new AAA:

– Kenai (see Mr. Ice Man) and Keeli, Arctic wolf brothers (see Wolf Brothers Sniff a Surprise)
– Keeli and Montana, female New Guinea singing dog
– Akela, male timber wolf, and Nala, female golden retriever

Guests are always surprised when the animal stars arrive at the AAA—we use all forms of transportation to get them here. Sometimes the animals are walked over from Wegeforth Bowl, sometimes they arrive in an air-conditioned van, sometimes they travel in a custom cart built for sea lions, sometimes they come in a shaded golf cart, and sometimes they hitch a ride on a horse-drawn buggy. The animal ambassadors are then walked into the AAA on leash and, once inside, the collar and leash come off and the fun begins! Guests may have an opportunity to speak with one of the trainers personally about the animals in the exhibit as they are coming or going; it’s a great way to learn about each individual animal and their partner. This magical encounter begins anytime after 9 a.m. daily, so please make it one of your next stops when you visit the San Diego Zoo!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Flamingos: Caribbean Kindergarten.


Mr. Ice Man

Kenai and his ice pile

Kenai and his ice pile

Meet Kenai, the Arctic wolf. He is a member of the super animal stars that work in our new San Diego Zoo experience for guests called Backstage Pass. Kenai makes daily appearances to private audiences while they enjoy a gourmet lunch. But in his off time, he likes to take walks through the Zoo. One of his favorite resting places happens to be at the loading dock of our Food Service warehouse. Who knew?

Kenai will guide his trainer to a cement driveway to wait patiently for a warehouse worker to bucket and hand deliver his personal pile of ice. These employees, while very busy with their own tasks, always take the time and often race one another just to supply Kenai with his ice pile. Kenai always looks the generous employee in the eye to convey his gratitude, then gleefully plunges into the cubes. Bystanders can’t help but smile watching this Arctic wolf frolic in the cold wetness. Kenai often eats it, too.

This warehouse is a busy place: semi trucks off-load supplies, construction and maintenance workers pass in and off Zoo grounds here, and daily supplies are loaded onto trucks that are delivered throughout the Zoo daily. None of this traffic disturbs the pleasure Kenai takes in his contact with his ice pile. One would think the sound of a back-up beeper on a semi truck might set off an instinctual alarm in this exotic animal. Either there isn’t one in place or he is ignoring the information, because his enjoyment is overriding it. Nonetheless, Kenai has made this stop a part of his daily routine.

If you don’t get a chance to see him at the warehouse, buy a ticket to Backstage Pass, where you’ll meet him while you eat and enjoy your ice right along with Kenai!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal handler at the San Diego Zoo. Read a previous post, Kenai on Vacation.


Cheetah and Dog Pals

cheetah_bakka_mileyBakka is a male South African cheetah and Miley is his female husky-mix domestic dog companion. This unique pair lives at Backstage Pass at the San Diego Zoo. Bakka is only a year old but has many adventures under his collar already. He began life in South Africa, where he was hand raised for the purpose of becoming an animal ambassador in the name of conservation. At six months of age, he flew to America, where he lived on a ranch in Northern California. His incredibly friendly demeanor made him a great candidate for employment at our Zoo, and after a successful interview, he became a member of our animals stars at the Zoo’s Backstage Pass program. But in order to keep him company, we needed to find him a suitable roommate. Why not a dog? Seriously, why not?

dog_mileyMost dogs are brave, smart, and, more importantly, very friendly with people. But not just any dog would do. We needed one with personality, composure, and pizzazz. A simple test was given to auditioners: walk them by barking dogs and watch to see how they react. If they ignore the commotion with grace and style, they pass. If they engage in it, then they probably aren’t what we were looking for. Miley scored a “10” in all categories.

Now I’m sure you are wondering: How were we going to introduce a one-year-old exotic male cheetah to a 2-year-old female domestic dog? Won’t he look at her as if she’s his next meal? We are trained professionals, so don’t try this at home! The San Diego Zoo has always paired dogs with cheetahs (see The Cheetah and the Golden Retriever). In the beginning, we kept these animals in enclosures that were next to each other, and we allowed contact between the two while they were with one of their trainers, leashes and collars in tow. We encouraged relaxed, calm behavior. We gradually moved to allowing the dog off leash and encouraged relaxed, calm behavior.

cheetah_bakka_miley_leashYou are now probably wondering who will be the leader in this odd coupling? If you chose the dog, you are absolutely right. So when Miley took the lead, in fact took the leash that was attached to Bakka the cheetah in her mouth and began walking him around the pen, we all applauded and laughed. Miley certainly had pizzazz! Today, if you happen to peek over the hedge at Backstage Pass or even better, purchase a ticket to enjoy this 1½-hour animal encounter, you will see Miley and Bakka working and walking together. Job well done, you two!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read about another animal member of the Backstage Pass team, Sicilian Donkey Sophia.


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