animal training


Cheetah Ambassador Majani

November 24, 2001, to July 12, 2012

Pioneer of the Cheetah Run program

With great sadness we report that Majani, the 124th cheetah born in our cheetah breeding program, pioneer of the Cheetah Run program at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, largest ambassador cheetah ever recorded, guest favorite, and PR star passed away. Majani was found by two of his senior trainers in his enclosure that morning. There is no evident trauma, and he was not suffering from any specific illness. Unfortunately, cheetahs are notorious for a very short life span in comparison with other cat species.

Majani is survived by sister Kubali (an ambassador at the San Diego Zoo), and Clifford, his companion dog. Clifford was instrumental in Majani’s training and will continue to assist with our youngest cheetah ambassador, Kiburi, as well as our trained hyenas, warthog, and camel.

Majani enjoys a training run in preparation for Cheetah Run at the Safari Park.

Majani was hand raised at the San Diego Zoo’s nursery. In May 2002, Majani and Clifford moved from the Zoo to the Safari Park to be a part of a new Animal Encounters program. Majani and Clifford were an instant hit at the Park. They made 410 appearances a year, from Animal Encounters to national television shows. In 2003, Majani began to train for an off-leash sprint after a mechanized lure. This training culminated in the birth of the Safari Park’s original Cheetah Run program.

Majani was the largest cheetah ever recorded in captivity at 144 pounds (65 kilograms). Although not deemed to go down in history as our strongest runner, no cheetah can top Majani for PR appearances. Majani and Clifford appeared on countless television programs including The Ellen Degeneres Show and America’s Funniest Home Videos. In 2011, they even took an airplane to New York to appear on the CBS Morning Show. Majani met many a conservationist, such as Laurie Marker from the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and, of course, Safari Park guests.

Cheetah Conservation Fund founder Laurie Marker had the privilege of meeting Majani!

Everyone who met him was left with a feeling of awe and compassion after experiencing his magnificence and hearing the thunder of his continual purr. We will miss our dear friend always but will continue his good work with cheetah ambassadors Kiburi, Amara, Johari, and Shiley. Be sure to watch a video, below, made for our San Diego Zoo Kids site that features Majani!

Janet Rose Hinostroza is an animal training supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Yun Zi: Favorite Cues

I LOVE training my keepers!

Training animals is one of my favorite things to do as a zookeeper. We get to spend extra time with them and get to enjoy the challenge of teaching the animals an action we want them to do. With most training at the Zoo, we try to keep the “cues” (the word and hand signal to tell the animal what to do) fairly the same for all of our carnivores. We use both a word cue and a hand signal when asking for a behavior in case there is a language barrier or an older animal is losing its hearing or sight. After a cue is presented, we use a “bridge” (the signal that a reward is coming). For the bridge we use the word “good” or a clicker.

Panda youngster Yun Zi has a long list of behaviors he knows or is currently learning. Many of them are easy ones, and a few are more complex. He knows:

Target (touch his nose to keeper’s fist)
Paws Down
Paws Up
Down (lay down)
Touch (to touch his paws and nails)
Open (mouth open)
Side (lay on his side)
Roll (roll over, both directions)
Inside (shifting into a bedroom)
Over (to move to the other side of a door)
Follow (following, while walking in the tunnel)
Out Out (to go onto exhibit)

He is working on the following cues:

Paw (put his paw through the blood-draw sleeve)
Hearing study (touching the red circle when he hears a tone played)

Most of these behaviors are standard for all three pandas here at the San Diego Zoo, with the exception of “Roll.” This is a great behavior to teach an animal so you can see his or her entire body, and this is a fun one for Yun Zi. The next time you visit Panda Trek, watch for when the keepers are done cleaning the exhibit, and you might catch a short training session with one of the bears.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi Training.


Duke the Dog Wears Many Hats

Duke greets guests at the Zoo.

The “Camp Critters” show at the San Diego Zoo’s Wegeforth Bowl made its debut on June 25, 2011. Since its inception, the cast of Camp Critters, just as in any production, includes many animals that play different parts in the show. The largest dog in the Zoo is Duke, our white Anatolian shepherd. He plays the role of Brutus, the right hand of the character we call Camp Counselor Margi Monahan. Duke weighs in at approximately 140 pounds (64 kilograms) and is an remarkably happy and  gentle giant.

Duke wears many hats: he is first and foremost the companion animal to Taraji, our cheetah. Both animals are almost three years old and were introduced to each other nearly two and a half years ago. Taraji and Duke play, chase, wrestle, and make public appearances together as a team. The unique relationship between this dog-and-cat duo offers trainers the opportunity to discuss the training of the animals and how Anatolian shepherds contribute to a unique cheetah conservation program in Africa. Due to their large size and protective nature, Anatolian shepherds have been trained to protect herds of livestock in Africa where cheetahs can be found. When a cheetah sees a dog the size of Duke protecting cattle or goats, the cheetah moves on to easier prey, which benefits both farmers and cheetahs.

Duke’s other role at the Zoo is as one of our most beloved animal ambassadors. He routinely makes rounds to staff offices throughout the Zoo, attends meetings, and generally puts smiles on faces, young and old, wherever he goes. Like any dog, Duke has his routine of playing with his cheetah friend, walking about the Zoo, and playing the part of Brutus in the “Camp Critters” show.

Duke has some company during his "spa" treatment.

Recently, Duke developed a small area on his foot that he was over-grooming. Over-grooming and the creation of what is often referred to as “hot-spot dermatitis” is a common occurrence in domestic canine companions and household members. He became very focused on this area, so to protect his foot until further diagnostic tests could be performed and an appropriate treatment plan developed, veterinarians fitted Duke with a bandage over the affected area. One of the methods for treating Duke is to keep his routine full of enriching activities such as walks, meeting guests, and shows, so that he focuses less on his bandage and more on his activity. Duke is not in distress, and keeping him active is actually of significant benefit to his well-being.

Duke remains busy learning new things every day and recently developed a friendship with our rescued female dog, Kona. Both dogs are close in age and energy; however, Kona weighs a hundred pounds less than Duke and is a hundred times more agile! Duke’s gangly gait and playful demeanor, along with Kona’s speed and agility, cause quite the play-day ruckus behind Wegeforth Bowl’s “Camp Critters” set. From staff to guests to his cheetah and dog friends, Duke is a doted-on dog!

Kristi Lee Dovich is an animal training manager at the San Diego Zoo.


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.