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Animal Training VS Enrichment Programs; What Is More Important?

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Throughout my career I discovered that the phycology of animals interest me most. Questions like why animals do their thing and why they have certain responses etc is an interesting part of why I enjoy what I do. Animal Training in general is a passionate part where I try to get better at and discover how my style of training works and what I’m actually doing. Meeting individuals that need different strategies that give you another perspective about the science of operant conditioning. Its cool to see how different species act different and are completely different on many different aspects when you train them. How you thought an animal would be is not at all what it is working with them up close. We learn so much through those interactions what helps us respect these animals even more.

We train for many different reasons:

PRIMARY:

  • Improved Husbandry
  • Medical Care
  • Increased Activity
  • Enrichment
  • Behaviour Interventions

SECONDARY:

  • Education
  • Visitor Interaction
  • Health and Safety
  • Support Conservation Programmes

They must all have one thing in common: to provide a net welfare benefit to the animal.

Of course training our animals in a zoo setting or with our dog at home are 2 completely different things. The science is the same we can all agree to this but our goals might differ very much. Im writing this article from a Zoological animal perspective where we have animals in big natural exhibits. I’ve been talking plenty of times about how we can have individual reach for animals on mixed specie exhibits or in big groups.

This is not what I would like to talk about right now.

What if we train our animals non stop? What would happen? Do we get seeking animals? If so, is this good? Believe it or not lately im slowly turning my back to animal training not at the extend that we should but I’m trying to find a balance of when its needed and when the animals need to be comfortable where they are in their own time. But what about this… Seeking animals will show us more anticipatory behavior than animals who are not that curious about us. This means that when anticipatory behavior can lead into stereotypic behavior what is not what we want to see in our animals. Curiosity is a good thing to have but it might also be a bad thing. Lets say it should be balanced out.

What about enrichment? Within the job I currently have we are looking more into the welfare of the animals we work with. How can we build a structure where the animals are the frontpage of our system. A lot of meetings, drafts and ideas have to pass through to find the best fit for the Zoo I work with but we all agree on one thing and that is that we want to be able to take care of them as best as we can through animal training, nutrition and enrichment etc.

To come back to the topic of me putting my back to animal training. This happens only to an extend and this is the reason why. Animal need more than a call over, a trainings plan and a target. The time budget of animals won’t fit with ours if we only look at the training aspect of their day. The perfect case would be that we train our animals when we need to but in the time being they have time for themselves 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 keeper and the animals when its not necessary. Pretty fair point. Animals should not get over excited because we are around, trying to get the connection less strong between the keeper and the animals might be a way to get there.

Termite Hill for Meerkats in Kolmarden Zoo

Enrichment should be one of the more important parts of the keepers day. Enrichment based on what the animal actual needs and not what the keeper thinks is funny. For example enrichment that gets the group hunting behavior for lions out of them. A big challenge but worth a try. Cooperative enrichment for Chimpanzees to build their social structure stronger towards each other. When we start balancing our training sessions out with our enrichment plans we would have a pretty variable day for the animals. The daily life of the animals should be as close as their counterparts in the reserves in my belief but then with voluntary medical behaviours mixed into them. How do we get there? Sometimes less training and more enrichment or more training and less enrichment. There should be a fair balance between the 2 topics.

Jerusalem Zoo – Elephant Nat using Enrichment

Assessments are needed to really know if the enrichment we provide for the animals work the way we want them to work. Compared to training our animals where we have results quickly its important to do these assessments with the devices we provide to be able to understand if they work the way we intend to. Especially if we want to lift up the care for the animals we have in our collections. If we do not know if something works how are we able to say we give them the best care possible?

Have fun enriching!

Peter Giljam

Thinking Outside the Zoo

 

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