Curiosity in Terrestrial Animals

Over the last few months, I’ve been writing a lot about motivation connected to marine mammals. Now, I’ve been introduced to a new position at Kolmårdens Djurpark where I’m able to rediscover this motivation and training strategies with the other zoo animals.

Although the training methods may be the same, working with terrestrial animals presents all new challenges. The biggest difference is creatively testing how far we can go with species who have never been trained in group scenarios before.


The question is, does all this training work the same way? We would guess so. We will only find out by trying, testing different strategies to see what animal responds best to which reinforcement. Can you imagine having a rhino so excited about training sessions that it becomes a completely different animal? It’s a funny way of thinking, but like today, when we were training the rhinos here at Kolmården for a recall, one of the animals just looked at us and made this surprisingly quick response on a given recall to the trainer who gave the signal. Honestly, I still have a lot to learn, but it was amazing for me to see an animal who has the image of being slower, to respond this quickly. The trainers have only been doing this for a little over a week and we can see a clear response from them.

Walking over to the Turkmenian Kulans, where we do the same; training the animals for recall so we can do a presentation about how fast they can run and that they are strictly group animals. We come to the exhibit and all the Kulans are eating together from a bale of hay. They see us and look up at us walking to the outdoor enclosure. The signal is given (three whistles on a soccer whistle). The Kulans take off and come to the position where we gave the signal.

If grazers do just that, eat all day long, what what was the reason for them to leave a bale of hay and come to us, where we gave them just a little bit of pellets?

The answer is fairly simple. The animals will never know what they get on a given recall. The only thing they know is whatever it is, it’s going to be fun. Curiosity takes over and they leave their grazing for something potentially better. Even though it’s not better, they didn’t know this before and this is the perfect example that animals like these are perfectly able to be trained into a mindset of curiosity and leaving what’s safe to them. In this case, their bale of hay.

Its very engaging for me to see animals being motivated by curiosity. As trainers, we think about reinforcements and I believe if we plan it better, we get different and better responses. Animals can get bored by primary reinforcement too. We have to create the “wow” factor. To do that, we have to discover what the animal enjoys most and what is species-specific.

I’ve learned that bears prefer specific foods during different seasons.  This means, if they like oranges right now, they may show no interest two months from now. This gives a whole different dimension to trying to discover what the animals want at what moment. If you can decode it, your training will go faster.

Isn’t it beautiful how animals show you their understanding of curiosity? Now, I want to challenge everybody to try this but with only using primaries the animals cannot eat. This may be a tough way to go, but that opens the box for sure.

Curiosity is an engaging part of animal training. From fins and flippers to tails, fur, and claws, it works with every animal. The creativity we give to them and the unexpected could change your way of looking at the animals as well as strengthening your relationship.

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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