A month or so ago one of the head keepers of the safari department in our zoo came to me and asked me about what the options are for training fallow deer’s. She ultimately wanted the hooves being trimmed. I thought this is possible but we have to put a lot of hours into this idea. Even though this was my first thought we discussed how we could do this with the least amount of time possible. The fallow deer’s are a group of 27+ individuals on a 6 acre field. They share their exhibit with 9+ European moose and their babies.

One of the first questions I asked was what the reason was to do this at this point. The team leader told me that because of the nutrition both animals need they sometimes eat each other’s food. There is a particular part in the pellets what makes the hooves grow faster and there for it would be good to keep them maintained so there won’t be any problems on the long run. Fair enough, but where do we start? One of the first things we do is look at the reinforcement choices, what do the animals like and what fits in their nutrition plan. Is it bad to give them particular reinforcers that do not fit in their nutrition plan there for we have to see first what is possible. After this we make a training plan and at the same time we look at the current status of the animals. How calm they are when we come near them (10-20 meters). When we collected all this information we started to figure out how to reach the goal of trimming all these hooves.

Us 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 predictability. We can use these routines to actually make socialization with quicker results. The history in the zoo I work is that every department has their favorite individual who had more attention than other animals around. This meant that in the fellow dear group there was also this individual who dared to come a lot closer to us than anybody else. This animal helped the rest coming closer. All these tiny details are part of the antecedent arrangement to give them ultimate success.

Training animals to eat from your hand is a very different story. They won’t just do it but with the timing you as trainer can have the animals will do it over a pretty quick time. At this moment in time we have 6 individuals who at from hand and 5 on the way. The whole group came from 20 meters away from us to at this point about 2-4 meters.

For this goal we started to talk about what techniques we wanted to use. Personally I’m a big fan of capturing behavior because it trains your timing very well but I only use this to an extend (Want to know more about capturing behaviour? CLICK HERE). Waiting for the animal to do a “behavior” before it gets reinforced gives you a better long-term foundation then when we would use other techniques as for example baiting or luring what I have seen in my experiences. The whole idea is that the animal puts a step forward and get rewarded right away. The step forward has to be in a particular range towards us as seen in the photo. Through mimicry the animals start to be more interested due to mimicking each other. (More about Mimicry HERE) This is the beautiful part of such flock animals. The flock is pretty big and are well spread out in the exhibit that’s why we decided to always go to the biggest group. This way we have most of them. At this point we are discussing a call over for both species where we can easily have access to the whole group. This can only be established if the whole group understands the link between the keepers and reinforcement. When the animals understand that the behavior come to the keeper gives a consequence the behavior is most likely occurring again with over time a more self-confident animal who will take steps easier and becomes more opportunistic.

What about the hoof trims?

Because in this exhibit we do not have a way of separating animals we decided to make some sort of separation option. A small box of 60cm wide and 80cm high allows us to have more control over 1 individual. On top of that it gives us more the safety for ourselves. The device we had built, we just did out of branches that were used in exhibits as a food source. The bark was eaten completely what allowed us to easily find tools to build such a thing. The nice part was that it looked fairly natural and we could leave it in the exhibit. This device is very new to the animals and there for we used habituation to get the animals used to this device by leaving it in the exhibit all the time.

The next step was making one of the animals follow into this box to move forward in our training. The biggest challenge wasn’t necessarily the animals but teaching the keepers to train such a group and individual. While we were still busy training the group to be more comfortable we started with the most comfortable individual already to show the keepers how you can train such a behavior step by step. 2 trainers were used. 1 for the timing of reinforcement and the other to model the behavior of lifting the foot and looking at the hooves. We work our way to about 20 seconds of holding the leg, afterwards we start the desensitization of the device used to clip the claws. One of the important details here was that the keepers organized that they could go to the veterinarians for a hoof trim course. Our veterinarians got very interested in this project and started to come and see what was going on. This gave us some chills because veterinarians aren’t always the best people for animals from the classical conditioning point of view. But the fellow deers really didn’t care, maybe because we came with a different car this time, who knows.

The team training this behavior was a team of 4. Who had to communicate very well to be able to understand which individual is “who” and who came closest at which moment.

Training them this way allows us to see the animals from way closer and discover more things about them. Hopefully over time we are able to handle them all in this device where they have to walk in and can even give them injections and or blood samples.


Who knows what is next!


Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”

Categories: Trainer Talk



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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