» » » Zookeepers Don’t Exist

Zookeepers Don’t Exist

posted in: Trainer Talk | 3

If I would tell you that you are not a zookeeper what would you say?

We have an instinctive survival mode like many other species. We know what we can eat and what we should’t eat and what we can do or what we should’t do due to dangerous outcomes. We also know that particular outcomes could be very joyfull. How do we know all those things? I find that a lot has to do with connecting the dots. When you eat this your stomach feels bad so you won’t eat it again. Or when you eat something that is very good you want more of it. There is an association between you eating it and the satisfaction that comes afterwards. This accounts for the behaviour we show on a daily base. When I work I get payed when I don’t work most likely payment won’t come. Back in the day you had to hunt to eat. When you hunt and you get something to bring back to the camp with you your hunt was successful because the association between the search and the animal you got to bring back to the camp makes the whole camp happy. There is a lot of associations going in in the world we are living in. People are made by their experiences and the outcomes of their actions. We call this Associative Learning.

Associative Learning or Classical Conditiong is discovered by I. Pavlov in the 1800s with his salivation experiment with dogs. He started to find out how animals associate events. He concluded that he might have discovered how animals learn. See the Video.

Classical Conditioning – A type of learning in which a conditioned stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus to elicit a reflex response or respondent behaviour.

Today your job is to go and see the animals before the park opens. When doing your circle, you have to give the first “Feeding” because you want to be efficient so you don’t have to go twice. Every time you enter an exhibit the animals get excited and start looking for you when they hear the squeaking sound of the door opening and they run to a position where they most likely get fed. This position is determent by the keeper for his sake of counting the animals a lot easier. Being done with his first specie he goes to the next one exactly like how this routine has been done for years. Coming to the next exhibit the animals already being there because they had heard the buggy coming their way, and yes it’s the “zookeeper” again with his bucket of food. The animals seem to run in circles ecstaticly with full “excitement” because the keeper is there again. I can keep on going this way but do you see a pattern here with the first story of this article? The associative learning?

Association – An aspect of learning in which two or more stimuli events or ideas become connected through being presented at the same time.

Behaviour happens all the time if we want it yes or no. Whenever we “feed” we train. We’ve been reinforcing some kind of behaviour. There is never a moment you don’t train so are we zookeepers or trainers? Zookeeping comes from a long history and is has been a growing profession due to the knowledge we create about the animals and their behaviour. The difference today is that we do not just “Feed” anymore. Behavioural observations, Associations between events etc become more important in today’s profession of “Zoo keeping”. When going through our daily routines we have to start thinking that we actually train our animals when the animals hear the buggy or the door of the exhibit the animals already know what’s going to happen. Animals Assosiate everything and it happens all the time whether you want it or not.

What means right away that we are trainers or how some of you want to call it modern zookeepers. Kolmarden zoo starts to be more and more busy with passing the message about associative learning (Classical Conditioning), whenever you enter an enclosure you need to know what the animals are doing before entering because you might be reinforcing a behaviour you preferably don’t want. The dangerous part is the association of the keeper with a ie food we reinforce the animals for an undesirable behaviour without us knowing it. Just because the animals link situations together who have a predictable outcome within these situations.

“We can’t just feed the animals anymore we have to think further than this”.

A month ago I was at a zoo where a keeper who seemed in his mid 40ties did his round of feeding. We stumbled on him at the Giant Otter exhibit where he was just going to “Feed” the animals. The animals came to him right away while screaming of excitement. After every given fish, the animals would eat it come back, each animal with his own little show for the keeper, from dancing to head banging to screaming.. Basically, he was training the Otters to perform a show for him. What might look funny for the audience is in reality superstitious behaviour. Feeding doesn’t exist anymore.


Zookeepers are Trainers whether you want to be a Trainer or not.

(Visited 2,823 times, 2 visits today)



3 Responses

  1. […] zookeepers use a lot of routines during the day. Routines reflect to classical conditioning (Read more about this topic HERE) what means that the animals connect situations together and know what will happen due to […]

  2. […] they should be stimulated this so anticipatory behavior won’t occur that quickly or not at all. Classical conditioning comes in mind. I had a talk with one of the supervisor at our Zoo who wants to diminish the connection between the […]

  3. Timon Van Oosten

    Good piece nice to read and great to see my granddad Chris Baris on the picture ,hè did the same as you whit his animals and it didn’t matter what kind of animal.Thanks Peter

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.