What About If the Reinforcement is Good for the Animal?

Imagine this, you have animals who we know like certain types of food but you can’t give this to them or animals who seem to be ”happy” when they get a particular fruit. Hmm…

I do think we all agree on the fact that training will go faster and easier with reinforcement the animals seem to like. I mean first strategy we all try or I guess most of us is to find out what food reinforcer the animals motivate so we can train them. It’s a topic never really addressed;

Nutrition in animal training. 

When we are in school to become a zookeeper or any other animal care taker we get a certain degree of animal nutrition, what is very important for the health of the animal.Eating giraffe I mean trying to make a giraffe eat meat might not work very well. While this works perfectly fine for vultures. I do have to say I didn’t pay to much attention in these classes now they were boring to me but back then “you know when you are young”. In Kolmårdens Djurpark we have our own nutrition specialist what is great to have because to be honest its very important to understand what different type of foods the animals should eat what reflects to their health. The welfare of the animals is effected by their food intake as well. This is the moment I thought I should’ve paid more attention in class.

As mentioned before we can give giraffes bananas if they like it or give rhinos vegetation that consist of leaves. I mean we observed that they function very well in our training sessions with that but the question is really…? is it good for them? Giraffes shouldn’t eat bananas because their metabolism and body are officially not made for this. Giraffes are leaf eaters and rhinos are grass eaters of origin. This affects the whole training program and motivation matter what I am talking about in previous blogs. To get back to the rhinos for example, they are grazers what means they eat all day long, just to mention that most of it is grass. Not everything they need comes from grass that’s why we give them some other food for various vitamins and nutrition’s what fits in their diet. Straight away this makes it a lot harder to find a way to motivate these animals within this diet plan but challenge accepted!

This is accountable for the all animals in our zoo.

Lately our Apes went through a re plan of their diet. They used to get quite some fruit but nowadays this is replaced to 95% vegetables. The animals at first were like ok… what is this.. well I guess some of you know these faces that apes can give you. Over time we discovered that it is not a big deal we observed that they have their preferences just like you and me. With good observation we could detect what in this new diet plan motivates the animals more with various types of vegetables. We have 4 gorillas and 21 chimpanzees at the moment. Every gorilla and chimpanzee has its own preference to different kinds of vegetables. This worked the same way with the giraffes. Kolmårdens Djurpark has one major benefit and that is that we are in the forest with our zoo. What means that there are plants and trees everywhere. Because of this for the giraffes we can try many different plants, and branches what fits perfectly in their diet plan. Leaves its al about leaves, over time we discovered that they are more motivated when the leaves just pop out but not fully grown yet. The giraffes seem to like this the most. This is great to know for further training. Although you only have this 1 time of the year. We use a lot of willow for a lot of our animals. We hatch this in the spring till the end of the summer. Here in Sweden we have quite some so we freeze a lot of this in for winter time. Because we live in the forest we have this privilege.

Gorilla eating

As many Zoo’s or facility’s that houses animals we do give our animal pellets as well. In pellets there are most of the time nutrition that they can not get from the plants we provide them therefor pellets are a great to fill these nutrition’s up who are missing in their diets. Depending on what specie we give different pellets. There is a differences in pellets  and the nutrition and vitamin value they consist of there for not all animals eat the same kind of pellets. At our zoo we use a calculation what says, we can feed maximum 20% pellets of their whole food intake. Many of the animals really do enjoy eating these pellets so for the training purpose it’s a very good motivational source what stays within their diets what’s best for them. For sugars there is another calculation, our nutrition specialist figured out how much sugar there is in which fruit or vegetable we give them. We want our animals to eat the least amount of sugar possible. The maximum amount we potentially could give our animals is 10% of their daily intake. What means if an elephant eats 25 kg a day he can consume 2,5kg sugar what would still be ok for our standards but again we go for the least amount possible.

You can see that training is not just telling the animals good job and reinforce. It goes a little deeper. I think it’s a very important matter to think about the nutrition factors within training. Yes, I can reach a goal in training faster by giving the animal a fruit type that’s high in sugar because it seems to like it so much…. But is it really good for them on the long run? We have to think further about what is reinforcing and most important healthiest for the animal’s food intake. We people always say you are what you eat. Could this be the same for the animals we care for?

Tonsak and Namsai R+

At the end of the story its better to use reinforcers that fit in their diet to keep their health on the highest standard possible even in animal training. It’s a huge challenge to find the right balance between reinforcers and diet pans but definitely not impossible. I do believe that if the diet is on a high standard, animals will act different as well.

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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