Being in a position of giving a helping hand with many different species gives me an opportunity to observe species I never had the chance to observe before, I learn a lot. Observation is an important part of our day. A Head Trainer told me once do we really know our animals if we just train them and never observe in free time? Valid question I thought and Past the message through the departments in our Zoo.

How do animals respond to each others behaviour? To different species joining the environment? To new members being added on the environment? Or even babies that are born or start to move a lot more?

There is a lot to learn through looking at the animals we work with especially at moments where we change the groups around for a little bit. As with people I believe that animals also have the ability to like some animals better as others what I think is a normal thing. When animals don’t really like each other for whatever reason we can make them accept each other what gives both of them the best lives possible.

Look at it from this perspective, you are a leader in the company and receive projects each month you have to finish. New projects come in other ones go out. You receive an exiting project and find the best team possible to make the project a great success. After deciding the team you start to introduce the team to the project. With enthusiasm they start and try to reach the goals you set for them as a team. Then you see somebody doing a bit better than others. You start to only give this team member compliments and time from your busy schedule. What will happen now is when the other team members discover that he gets all the credit they start to pick on him just because the others are not recognized for the work they do. The Team slowly starts to push him out of the group. The Leader discovers this by looking at the work that’s being done. The leader made the mistake to only reinforce one of the team members. Just in time he discovers the problem and decide to take action but how?

He starts to think how he could do this and comes with a plan. The Leader knows each individual and finds out what they like. Whenever the team member that was pushed away comes back he reinforces the team with what they like, a coffee, cake, fruit you name it. It is already reinforcing for the person that is pushed back to be back and there for the others will be reinforced for allowing him to be there. This only happens when the person who was pushed away comes into the team without issues. The team only gets reinforced with dinners etc when they all work together. Over time the problem will disappear and the team works well again.

This happens fairly often in animal groups as well where one animal gets reinforced and the other one not if this is unintended yes or no. This can cause aggression or unfairness what can lead to aggression. Especially when the trainer did this to the wrong individuals. As trainers we have to look at when we reinforce, what we reinforce and who we reinforce first. What means knowing the group is an important part of the trainers knowledge.

There is a technique called Cooperative Feeding,


“It was through the handling of two performing male sea lions that the first author discovered a technique for reducing aggression and enhancing positive social interaction that is referred to as cooperative feeding” (Laule & Desmond, 1991)

“Operationally, this entails reinforcing two events within the group simultaneously: Dominant animals are reinforced for allowing subdominant animals to receive food or attention, whereas the subdominant animals are reinforced for being “brave” enough to accept food or attention in the presence of these more aggressive animals”

This technique works greatly with introductions, acceptance of group members and further adaptations. I’m going to explain this a bit more for you:

We have 4 rhinos, one of them is a male and the others are 3 are females.  The male most of the time gets dominated by the females, this could have many reasons but when food is present there is an influx in dominance. Now rhinos eat a majority of the day what might be a problem when we think about the dominance of the females. When we call the 4 animals to the back area we try to make sure that everybody finds it reinforcing enough to come to a smaller area.

When the females know reinforcement is coming they chase the male further away to have more for themselves. How can we make sure the male finds the call over to the back reinforcing even though 3 females are there dominating him? The focus should maybe not be on the male but on the females. We should teach the females to accept the male to be part of the group. When the females run into the smaller area and the they let the male follow, we reinforce the females right away with a hand full of hay (for example). When the male arrives, we reinforce him a hand full as well. Right after that we give the females more. When we are teaching the females to accept the balance of females chasing the male away goes down because they will understand if we accept him we get more high value reinforcers.

When this happens in some cases the animals start to work even better in a team.

I remember that when a baby killer whale was born in France we trained the mother to go get the baby after some weeks. After some months had passed we thought her get the baby and pass the gate to another pool. How much of a struggle a baby can be it didn’t work out well. The other animals were in the back area in control but didn’t get reinforced to much till everybody was in place. It took some time and some tries but the mother couldn’t do it. Then what happened I found remarkable because the matriarch female split from control swam to the pool where the baby was swimming, used some force to an extend and got that baby within no time in the designated pool they all had to be in. She was observing the other trainers struggle to make the mom get the baby without success. On top of that having a strong system and the trainers so black and white in consequences, their animals had a clear understanding what we want from them.

Talking about introductions I believe they would work better with cooperative feeding. Yes, I agree and hear you thinking that the animals need time for themselves to get to know the other specie or individual. That’s right! But we can help them by pairing more positive experiences to it. When they go in the group for the first time we add a huge amount of reinforcement. We teach the animals who have to accept the newbie to accept the newbie by a strategy of Cooperative Feeding. Before we let them in complete free time together we will separate them in control first. With some sessions the animals start to understand “ahaaaa, when the newbie is there higher value reinforcement will come” and so the introduction will go more fluently.

With the Capybaras we did a similar thing. We had a new male and got him into the group. We saw that he would pick on one particular individual over time. The team asked me to have a look and see how we can get the group to work better. I Observed for a little bit and decided to grab the bucket of goodies and reinforce when they ignored each other by walking passed each other or taking a turn away from the individual and so on. Reinforcing him right away of ignoring everything and reinforcing all the other behaviours not connected to the aggression we started to reinforce the others after him and then him again. With some practice of the other keepers they started to do the same where they saw a drastic change over a bit of time.


Now Don’t Forget:

“Cooperative Feeding can help ensure that all individuals-not just the stronger or more dominant ones-enjoy a quality of life. Studies have shown significantly reduction of excessive aggression (Bloomsmith et al., 1994) and an increase in affiliative behaviors as a result of training (Cox, 1987; Desmond et al., 1987; Schapiro et al., 2001; Schapiro et al., 2003/this issue.

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”



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