Cover photo: Simon Jonsson
One of the most beautiful moments of an animal trainer’s life is to see the animals they work with giving birth to a new member of the family. I was lucky enough to see a couple amazing births happening right in front of my eyes. Some of us say that it’s a reflection of the good work we are doing because breeding will not just happen. I was able to experience a killer whale give birth at one of the parks I had worked at, its a beautiful feeling and an amazing experience, especially when everything goes by plan.
Currently I’m reading a book called “Curious”. In this book they talk about the puzzle pieces we are looking for within curiousity. The cool part they talk about is children and their curiosity to discover the world around them. They explain that when we respond to the children in a positive way the kids keep on being curious, if we ignore their curious discoveries it will slowly go away. A baby asks questions al the time, by their own way of talking, by tasting or pointing fingers. We just have to decode what they are asking. They did a test with 16 month old babies where they let the mother and baby be in a room with a novel interesting object for the baby.
The goal was to see the response of the baby when the mother would leave the room and when it comes back. The idea is to see what effect it has on the novel object compared to greeting the mom when she comes back. The outcome was that a novel object gave a shorter greeting than a boring object they already knew. I find this interesting.
Curiosity by Leonardo da Vinci:
I came to the entrance of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished and unaware of such a thing. Bending my back into an arch I rested my left hand on my knee and held my right hand over my downcast and contracted eyebrows: often bending first one way and then the other, to see whether I could discover anything inside, and this being forbidden by the deep darkness within, and after having remained there some time, two contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire – fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there were any marvellous thing within it.
The way DaVinci present it is interesting to me because if I reflect this to our daily work with animals and we combine the story of DaVinci and the study about the babies and the novel object, it gives me directly a great insight in how conditioning animals has such a big impact to the new borns that come in the future.
As all of the animal behaviourists in us know animals copy each other, they observe one another to learn. So do babies with their mothers, they learn survival skills by mimicking what their mother or even other babies are doing. In the work we are doing today with for example hoof stock species, we observed that when we train the adults the babies become a lot more comfortable with us. Even without any reinforcement presented from us, with following (mimicking) their family members we have a head start for the future.
3 years ago, at the dolphinarium of Kolmårdens Wildlife Park a baby dolphin was born. We named her “Peach”. She was born at a moment where we established a very creative way of presenting enrichment to our animals (read it HERE). We had applied a system of puzzle pieces. The puzzle pieces could be attached and detached fairly easy. A great way to enrich the animal’s environment but there was something extra to it we as trainers had never really thought of before. Over the last 3 years I have seen Peach grow to an animal extremely curious and engaging animal. Novel objects are seen as “what is that, I want to touch it” what helps us conditioning her for various behaviours where novel objects are needed.
Peach was born in a moment where we changed the environment continuously what allowed her to get used to different objects on a pretty fast rate. While she saw the others interacting with it she decided to copy the others and see what you could do with those devices. We were using a desensitisation program within our enrichment program.
Recently a baby rhino that was born at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park. A beautiful young little girl. Playful with its mother and running around in the sand. The elephant team is a young and creative team who are not afraid of thinking outside the box. They are nonstop looking into new and creative ways to enrich the animals. Our rhinos are not as exposed to novel items as our dolphins but this slowly changes. The team had hung up firehose in the exhibit for the animal to play with. Within 3 days’ time the animal started to show interest in the novel objects added in her environment. This will help her future to become more optimistic towards new objects.
This makes me think because in our zoo we have many hoof stock animals and babies are born pretty often. If we only change the culture of how we take care of the hoof stock with adding positive experiences through environmental enrichment and use more positive reinforcement, would the babies be faster adapted to changes and become more opportunistic in their environment as when we wouldn’t change anything? It seems to happen with the young dolphin, Peach.
At the beginning of this year we challenged the Asian Wild Asses in our park with a recall. They know this behaviour very well. We have practised this behaviour often with a different reinforcement all the time. This made the behaviour a lot stronger as before. The history of the behaviour is well established. What you have to know is when we started to reshape this behaviour we only had 5 individuals. As of today the group consists of about 16 of all different ages. The challenge was to see if the adults would still respond to the signal while having babies with them. We prepared the reinforcement, we observed where the animals were, all of us wondering if it would work. We haven’t asked this behaviour for a while but we knew that the animals had a strong history.
We used the same position as where it was trained to give us some more chances of success. We planned the reinforcement for the animals and there we went. I stayed back a little bit to see what would happen. It seemed like some of the adults discovered the trainer fairly quickly and started to slowly walk his way. The trainer presented the signal, what you could hear over a big distance. The first animals started to look and respond and the rest followed even the babies! We were successful with our try out.
Training animals and applying enrichment goes a lot further than we think. We have an effect on many generations to come only by training one adult in the group. Animals observe us as well! This allows us to shape up our welfare directly for future generations. When we give the animals challenges on an early age, they will be able to problem solve a lot quicker.