Shapes, Forms and Colours

3 weeks ago I was in Arizona walking through the desert where I talked with Grey Stafford about many different topics regarding zoological facilities. Animal Training, Enrichment, Conservation efforts  all these topics passed our thoughts. You know how that goes when you have 2 zoo lovers walking next to one another, both from different sides of the world. Let me tell you one thing I’m walking a lot in the Swedish forests where we have to be careful for Moose, Brown Bears and Lynxes while in the Sonoran desert in Arizona you have to stay on the trail otherwise there is a chance of surprising encounters with animals such as rattle snakes or Tarantulas, not even to mention the cactuses that can shoot their needles at you. Completely different worlds as you can see but still the same. After our walk ideas passed through my head over and over again. How we as a zoo should be training more for conservation and how we can focus more on research what will help the animals roaming in nature reserves. It seems like people get more respect for animals when they know how intelligent they are. Do not ask me why. I mean why do we take such good care of “dogs” and not the same for other animals? Animals should be animals right? As we know at this stage in the world it doesn’t work that way.

Later that week I talked to Ken Ramirez and I asked him if he ever trained animals to respond to shapes in different group settings? Luckily he said yes. I guess we all had that moment in our minds that said what didn’t he train, right? Anyway, this gave me the confirmation of that it is done before so we can do this to! Why shouldn’t we train our animals for shapes? That’s the question I asked myself as well. What about our 21 chimpanzees… Wouldn’t it be great If we did this. For example when I show them a big sign, lets say a big green square and we train only 5 chimpanzees for this shape what will mean for them to come backstage. Each subgroup has a different shape and colour. How easy would it be for the zookeeper to ask a just a subgroup of  inside by showing their shape instead of 21 at the same time and do this full separation what will take more time at the end of the story.

Training a shapes and colours are not new in the animal training world. Shapes are essentially the same as targets but then very individual. I mean there are plenty of places around that train shapes in their facilities. One of the facilities called Bearizona is using a shape to get one of their animals to do more exercise, very cool if you ask me and on top of that they are using it for their presentations. This is just one individual but shapes give animals a great variation. The challenges they had training the shape was very interesting. They wanted to have the animal target in the middle of the blue circle. There for the made a small whole in the middle of the shape where they wanted to spray some milk through. This unfortunately didn’t work but because there was a detailed focus point now they did reached their goal.

Dave O’Connel – Bearizona Wildlife Park

At our zoo we started shapes with out fur seals. Not as an efficiency matter in the care for the animals but just another variation on our gating strategies. At our pinniped department we give a signal to start the session, we use a bell. The fur seals come inside while all the seals (Grey Seals and Harbor Seals) go to a position in the outside area. Where ever the fur seals are in the indoor enclosure they will get reinforced for just coming into the house. The variation we want to give them is the following, before we give the start of session signal we add the shapes in the pens. Those positions where we add the shapes will change every single day. Then we give the start of session signal and the animals have to find their own shape to be able to start the actual session. This gives a great variety for the animals and a very good mind enriching behaviour.


To train shapes we have to think about more then just introducing a shape as a target. Discrimination is an important part in training a shape on its own. What if we add different shapes, would the animal still be able to recognize the shape that’s supposed to be his? What about the topography? You might have trained a specific location by focussing to much on touching the shape. To be able to see if the animal really understand his or her shape we should change the amount of shapes presented, the location from maybe underwater, high up a mountain or somewhere lying on the grass. Generalisation is an important aspect of training a shape or a colour. It doesn’t mean when the animal touches the shape as a target the behaviour is finished. There is a lot more to it when you think about it. We are training animals to actually discriminate a similar object the same settings.

There are some places who use instead of shapes different colours as target points. Great idea although I think colours are more tricky then the shapes itself. This is the reason, we aren’t always sure if the specie can see colour, if they do perfect but if they don’t they might only see grey tints in the colours instead what can lead to a bit of confusion for the animal. At Randers Regnskov Denmark they trained their alligators to station for easier management of the individuals where they can work to a point to crate train those animals.  very cool strategy to train a group of animals with not many trainers. Photo: Rangers Regnskov, Denmark – Brian Rasmussen

I find that efficiency is one of the key aspects in getting modern zookeepers to be more willing to train their animals. I mean lets face it in our zoo we have around 300 hoof stock animals and our team of keepers is on a daily base around 6 to 7. This makes it hard when you want to train all the animals. We still decided to start with some of them and to be honest the keepers do a incredibly amazing job. For example at the moment we have 9 giraffes, they are housed on a big field with other species such as Giant Elands, Wildebeest, Zebras etc. We are able to call all Giraffes over and feed them from our hands. Now we are able to have them all come to control and accepting to be reinforced by us, we can take some potential next steps. For the efficiency of the keepers we thought about this, instead of needing 3 or sometimes 4 trainers to hold giraffes we thought about a shape for each individual what means that animal will get trained while the rest can leave or hang out on their own. This reduces the zookeepers needed for a training session. The progression keeps growing just because you can do it on your own. More training will be done because the zookeepers can do it all by themselves instead and it takes a lot less time.

Some facilities use shapes who are connected to positions, for example at the OdySea in Arizona they trained their different shark species to come to different areas in the pool. These areas all have a different shape. Each shape connects to a different specie of shark in the aquarium. This gives more control over the individuals and their health. If they can do it with sharks why not with other species?

To come back to the research aspect here, shapes and colours are trained for discrimination and for various other challenges. If we train this concept to many other species we get to know more about what they are able to do and how they think. On top of that group management could become easier, better and more stable. It gives animals variation and enrichment. We get more efficiency from it and our days are more effective. So why shouldn’t we just all train our species shapes, forms and colour discrimination?

Cover Photo: Kirstin Anderson Hanson – Shape training with Cormorants Website: Facebook: marine animal behavior and bioacoustics 

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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