Species and individuals who prefer to flee… Where do you start?

You know this one animal, or these species who are extremely afraid of humans? In the marine mammal world, we do have these individuals who are more sensitive than others. In the zoo world we have many species who are afraid, or are flight animals by nature. With these animal’s reinforcement strategies work very different. This most likely because they value their behaviour of fleeing over what you decided to provide them after they did a good job. It’s up to the trainer to discover what is the best reinforcer for that particular specie, that individual and even the scenario you are in.

Blog photo july 2016 a

Here at Kolmårdens Djurpark we have quite some species (ca 70 different ones). We have Carnivores, Omnivores, Angulates, Apes and so on. All of these species have a different way of understanding reinforcement and scare level… how I want to call it. We have a beautiful Savannah and Safari; on these fields we have quite some animals who prefer fleeing instead of staying out of curiosity. If you look up the word flight in the dictionary you will find “the act of fleeing or running away, as from danger”. Now can you imagine, you show up to an animal and the first thing the animal does is running away or hiding itself in the safest place possible provided in the exhibit. We have plenty of species that would respond that way when you show up. Even though you bring reinforcement with you, at the start the animal has no clue what you want and doesn’t even understand that you have something for the animal. How do you start or how does this work?

Understanding the natural behavior of animals is an important part for making training plans. I remember once, the first supervisor I worked for telling me; peter training a blood sampling behavior or other husbandry behavior that have needs higher criteria with sea lions, it might be better to train closer to the water because they feel more comfortable there. All these specie specific details are valuable to know and I think especially with animals where it is very normal to flee. How do you start? There is always a window where we can find a moment that the species look at us. This window could be 0,25 seconds or 5 seconds; these are the moments to apply the best reinforcement for them in my experience. It these moments its not about what you bring its about your moves that gives the animal/ animals the best reinforcement. This reflects to the trust you need to build up with them. When animals are afraid some of them show aggression, some of them show flee behavior. At both scenarios the animal wants you to leave. This is a strong reinforcement for the animals and there for the timing has to be very good. Now to talk about fleeing animals or animals who are very scared from the beginning. As I mentioned trust is the main key here. Them seeing you coming put something down is mostly the stress factor for the animal to potentially leave, this will not be reinforcing for them but and leaving after you put something in their exhibit is a high reinforcement for the animals because you take away the stress they have when they are scared. You build up the trust to leave the animals before they leave you.

Working with gibbons the last couple weeks we have seen that by leaving at the right moments we can show the animals “its oke, nothing will happen only fun stuff”. By leaving when they move to the reinforcement we have them to the point that we add in signals that the animals understand where to go without being scared. They see us and come to us, this all because we have observed them and looked at what we think is the highest value of reinforcement in different scenarios. We changed their behavior completely but this took a lot of patience from the trainers. Detailed training was a strong point here because when do you take the next step or even what is the next step? Animals observe as well. So first we would give them the reinforcement and then leave. The observation of the animal is us preparing reinforcement giving this to them from a distance in a basket and then we leave. The animal starts to eat when we leave. Now the next step would be for example with the gibbons when one moves just a tiny bit or even sits still when we walk in we throw the reinforcement in the basket we made for them and leave. The change of behavior is that they did not flee when we came in. The smallest movement we leave after this step the movement has to be towards us. From there we start to connect more and more the reinforcement beside walking away towards us. To the animals this will reflect into the trust we need for them to be able to get trained for further foundation and advanced behaviours.

Photo blog July 2016

Beside the matter of how to use the strategies of starting training with flight animals another big advantage is that they follow each other. When one goes the other go. In my own language “Dutch”, we have a saying “When one sheep walks over the dam the rest will follow”. We use this saying in many different ways to explain scenarios in our own human lives but for a lot of species in the animal kingdom it literarily works this way. When one animal trusts us more than the others, that one animal pulls the other guys through the situation. Now can you imagine to teach that animal straight away that it has to get the group for us. This is a practice that has been used in many zoo’s and marine parks.

A detailed plan and looking into the window of opportunities to find when the animals are still with us is essential to train animals for further signals and even shifting. We have to think what is reinforcement for each specie. Most of the time its not about look what I have with me. Its more about who are you and go away for example. The observation that we do towards the animals has a great value and don’t forget the animals observe us as well. Even though they do not take your reinforcement they still see you putting it out there.

Observation is the Key when you start to train a green animal!

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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