All the achievements humans have reached is done with Teamwork. From discoveries to inventions, you name it somewhere there was a team involved. We know that most of the time problem solving is easier when we are with a team. Beside the Teamwork that we need we have a particular satisfaction when there are more people in the room than just ourselves. If this is an intrinsic cause yes or no people need the social behavior to survive on this planet. At the end of the line Teamwork is the way to go. People cooperate with each other by helping each other succeed. We are social beings and need this for our survival.

There are plenty of animals who do a similar thing. I remember looking up information about Ostriches and believe it or not they have a very smart way of surviving where they live. Within an Ostrich group there is a dominant pair. This pair makes a big nest and will stay on the eggs. The other females add their eggs into this big nest. When the chicks come out there are many of them to take care of but it goes a step further, the dominant male and female abduct chicks from other groups walking on the savanna. Those groups can be over 200 Ostriches. The reason? Nobody really knows but thinking about what it could be… the dominant pair wants their blood to survive so using other chicks from other pairs makes the survival rate of their own chicks higher. It’s a smart way of doing it. Many animals have their survival techniques ready to go, if this is the case with these birds more observation is needed. But there is more.

While training for my endurance races, I passed a field with 2 horses. I saw them from quite a distance because something caught my eye. This time of the year in Sweden we have a ton of bugs, mosquitos and you name it. Very annoying for us and for the animals. The warmth and dry periods (sounds like Sweden is a very tropical country, it’s not don’t worry ) gives the fly’s a chance to produce on a higher pace. Many horse owners add a mash around the heads of the horses to protect the eyes from the flies. The 2 horses I passed were standing side by side head to bum, bum to head. Funny to watch but why would they stand this way? What was their reason and what were they thinking. I guess communication doesn’t work this way if you stand in this position towards each other, or does it? But maybe I came in too late to see what happened previously? The outcome seemed like they had solved a problem for each other, But for what? I came closer and closer and to my surprise it looked like they were cooperating to get rid of these terrible flies. I came closer and saw that they tried to get rid of the fly’s by standing in the wave of each others tails. They can’t reach their own head with their tails but standing next to each other the way they did helps one another to get rid of these stinging fly’s.

This makes me wonder how animals understand these types of situations and how they come up with their solutions? A type of communication and cooparation has to be in place with animals working together in such a way. Within the research centers and Zoological communities there has been plenty of research done with cooperation between individuals to reach a particular goal.

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At Kolmården Zoo they testing if gibbons understand to cooperate with each other. We want them to pull a rope on both ends what they are not able to reach on their own. Attached to that rope will be a device where a reinforcer is present. Only by working together they are able to get this platform with reinforcement coming closer. First we teach them to pull a rope on their own. By pulling a rope attached to a platform on another piece of wood the platform shuffles to them with reinforcement present on it.  After that we start to use 2 ropes for 1 animal, now the animal has to figure out pulling 2 ropes at the same time. If they pull 1 rope it won’t work so they need to pull both. It’s a great way for us to understand the abilities of the animals we work with. Especially animals we do not know so much about.


We have many animals in our Zoo who have strong social bonds. One of them are the Dholes. A dhole is an Asian wild dog. For them we are building Enrichment Devices where they have to cooperate together to be able to reach the goal. One of the ideas is having a chuck of meat on a bungee cord what they can’t reach. Attached to the bungee cord is another rope that they are able to reach. This means one animal has to pull the meat down while another one can eat. Just another way of making them cooperate with each other.

Animals are a lot more intelligent than we ever thought. Reading book after book about behavioral discoveries it comes in my mind that we really do not know so much about the animals we share this planet with. One day working in Spain I observed a remarkable play behavior between 2 killer whales. One animal was in 1 pool and the other in the pool right behind it. Even though the gate was open they stayed both on the side where they had a slide separating each other. This slide covers 2 meters from pool to pool. One of the whales found a tiny rock and decided to throw it over the 2 meter slide to the other animal. The other animal picked up the rock and the game started. It looked like ping pong with a rock. The animals had invented a game! This went on for quite a while. How did these animals set this behavior up? How did both of them know to play this game together? How could one of them start and letting the other one know to throw it back? There is a lot more to learn about communication and cooperation.

Maybe we should start looking more in observing the pleasant behaviours or the positive state behaviours instead of the ones we think are negative. When we know the behavioural diversity of the social if not all animals we work with we can measure what would be needed for their survival. Cooperation is part of the training and enrichment strategies of todays modern Zoo’s.

Animals are capable of doing a lot more then we think!

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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