…but its his favourite!

Positive reinforcement is not just applying an object or food source what helps increase the behaviour you want. It actually goes a lot further than this. Working in a zoo setting gives a whole different perspective to reinforcement for the animals. A go to at first is 9 out of 10 times a food source. As zookeepers we become extremely creative but should we be careful? Animals have their needs and so do their bodies. We have to look at many different standpoints when it comes to a food source as a reinforces. I mean we can’t just say “Perfect, he loves banana” unfortunately it doesn’t work this way. For us in our zoo its very important to stay in the nutrition value of what the animal needs. We asked one of the veterinarians Louise Guevara at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park how she sees proper nutrition in a zoological facility.

In our daily work with non-domesticated animals in captivity it is our responsibility to make sure they are well in all meanings. The main reasons for keeping the animals in zoo setting are for educational purposes, conservation of the threatened species as well as research. We are facing many different fields of disciplines of responsibility and one of them is the feeding and nutrition of our animals. How can we make sure that we provide them with the most appropriate feedstuff?

Our domesticated animals are facing a continuously increasing market of a variety of menus, particularly of specialized concentrates. The commercialization of different highly concentrated feedstuff for zoo animals is also continuously developing. But can these highly concentrated feedstuff really fulfill all the needs of our animals? How about all the practicalities around the eating process itself?

Simple puzzle box for Chimpanzees

If we look beyond the nutritional contents of the feedstuff, many animal species have a need of prolonged eating times in order to properly digest the food, the teeth of others, particularly hypsodonts, might need to chew more resistant substrate in order to get a natural wear and trimming of their surfaces. The natural cycle of the food menus may vary substantially in species originating in zones with large seasonal variety. In zoo settings we often face problems like oral stereotypies in giraffes reflexing the need of an increased buffering capacity from the bicarbonate in the saliva due to an increased acidity from feeding too little browse or too high levels of concentrates.

Another common challenges in human care is metabolic bone disease in reptiles as well as mammals, due to imbalances in the calcium/phosphorous levels and/or vitamin D deficiency where spontaneous fractures are not uncommon. Not to forget about aggressions and food envies in primates fed too high sugar contents, obesities with infertility or labor difficulties as a consequence, iron storage disease and many other food related diseases.

It is essential to be curious, look for knowledge, alternatives and aim for a continuous improvement.

Change of diet, from fruit to vegetables

The Zoo where I work, we have faced many of the challenges mentioned. In some of the species where we could not find a solution for the problems, we have simply decided to leave that species out of our collection and in other cases we have managed to find alternatives. In general we have cut down the levels of sugars and starches substantially and we see a lot less of food related aggressions and we have calmer groups of primates. Initially this change can be difficult since many species favor high sugar levels to more healthy low sugar, high fiber feedstuff. Compared with human children most of us know that a child would at most time choose candy to broccoli, also being the case in our zoo species who many times can face the same food related diseases as humans. The greens found in the wild differ substantially from the available commercialized products, the former in general having a far lower sugar content.

Louise Guevara, Vet at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park

Other examples of improvements from Kolmården is our own small scale production of a few insect species offering a larger variety of food and great enrichment to our insectivores. In order to provide all year around browse to our large browsers in the park we started to freeze branches all through the summer season to provide a large variety both regarding nutritional contents and taste. There is still much more to improve and develop and in my dream zoo setting we would also show our visitors how the food is cultured as well as presented to our animals to best meet their nutritional needs as a whole. I would say that meeting the correct numerical nutritional composition of feedstuff is our easiest challenge in zoo settings regarding nutrition. But we need to continuously analyze and try to develop the best ways to meet also the zoogeographical, social, physioanatomical- and environmental needs of our species. – Louise Guevara

As you can see what is important to mention is that stereotypy can occur with a pour nutrition plan. For us behaviourists this is important to know.

“We can spend all of our time working on the problems once they’ve developed,or we can be pro-active and spend the time making sure the problems never arise.”  – Ocean Embassy 2009

Before applying a food source as reinforcement we have to make sure that we use something that fits for the animals and not just because the animals love it.

Happy Training!


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!

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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