Australasian Animal Training Conference 2018

About a year ago, I received an invitation to be a keynote speaker at an animal training conference all the way in Australia. I was super excited and told everyone about it. I accepted immediately and started making plans. In November 2018 I went to Melbourne to be part of this conference, where around 200 animal professionals where in attendance. Beside myself, there were 3 other keynote speakers. I had to do my speech on a Thursday, and for me it was my very first keynote speech; I wanted to impress people but at the same time I was nervous if I’d be able to.

The topic I came up with for my keynote speech, is the topic of this article, should we challenge zoo routines? The reason I chose this topic was simple; this is exactly what I’m trying to challenge in our zoo, so why not talk about the successes, try and inspire people and show them it is possible. The day before I had to do my speech, I was messing around with how I wanted the presentation to look. I created about 50 slides and just hoped that people would be happy to listen to my story.

Over time I’ve discovered that zoos have a routine set by the keepers. Each zoo has their own routine, whether this is good or bad. My belief is that routines are actually a zoos worst nightmare. Most likely you’re asking yourself why, because for you, they work. Following a routine helps you to know what you have done and what to do next. But for the animals, are routines that good?

Routine: “a sequence of actions regularly follow”, “frequency and without proper consideration of the consequences”

First we have to look into classical conditioning, to see why animals respond the way they respond. Classical conditioning is associative learning, which means animals associate certain things with other things. This can be situations, sounds, scenarios etc. What does this have to do with routines? Well, the animals know routines better than us. They hear the zookeeper’s buggy coming from miles away, they know 9 am means breakfast and they know which zookeeper is which, just by hearing their voices.

Through Classical Conditioning the following happens within our routines,

  • Situations that are meaningless become meaningful – Jenifer Zeligs
  • Creates links to motivators – Jenifer Zeligs

I remember what one of the elephant keepers told me back in the day, ‘washing elephants has to happen every day’. Not knowing a thing about elephants, I was like ‘Ok, but why is this?’ he answered ‘Because the elephants need it’. I thought hmm ok, is that really true? I then decided to contact people around the world and discovered slowly that this was a set routine, built into the history of the elephant houses at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park, over the last decade.

After a while, I came back to the keepers and asked if we could we do it differently? After we moved to protective management, the keepers had a lot of difficulty to get the animals washed daily. In the last 2 years, we had drastically changed the way we looked at their behaviour and the keepers came with some cool ideas to wash our elephants.

Routines aren’t very good for the animals, you can get a lot of anticipatory behaviours such as pacing, rocking, aggression, jumping etc.

Predictability: “the ability to be predicted”

There is one study done on 4 groups of Chimpanzees (Bloomsmith et al, 1995) where he tested the predictable feeding schedule and the outcomes of the responses the animals had towards the predictable and unpredictable feeding schedules. What came out of the study was basically that on a predictable schedule you will see more abnormal behaviours then feeding on an unpredictable schedule. 

But are routines always bad?

While I was trying to discover if this is the case, I came across a presentation, where the presenter explained that predictability can be good for welfare. That’s where she lost me, because I thought that was not true, because predictability leads to repetitive behaviours. She highlighted in her presentation 2 studies.

One of the studies was done with Brown Capuchins (Ulyan et al., 2006) where they compared the predictable and the unpredictable routine. The outcome was that there was an increased social activity an hour before feeding time. Another study that has been done was with Atlantic Salmon (Canon Jones et al., 2012; Sanchez et al., 2009). They discovered that a feeding routine decreased fin damage and the cortisol went down when they were fed on a predictable schedule.

While trying to make life easier for the keepers, I discovered that we can use routines to help us become more efficient. We should look at from point of view of the animals. What if we can change the way we work through focusing on a routine? There is just one small change to make this happen and that is…

“The only application is to change the preparation”

If we only change the way we prepare the extra food supplements for the animals, by leaving it on the outside of the exhibit until we open the doors for the animals to come inside. When the animals come inside we reinforce the animals who come directly. This way over time the animals will start to understand what they are reinforced for and this will make out routine go a lot faster and so more effectively. This to a point where we can ask animals to come in at any given moment in the day.

We just have to focus on the outcome for the animals. We have to plan their consequence and by varying the time and the amount we give we can have a positive effect on the animal’s behaviour.

In the end, the animals expectation that things will go right is measured by the level of engagement they show us. Training animals for participating in research practices is a great way for a zoo to show why the work they do is important. Everything we do within our zoos should be at a net welfare benefit to the animal. You want a collar on an animal? Give the keepers time to condition the animals and don’t just dart them and add a collar. We need question how things are done and stop focusing solely on the outcome.

Many husbandry practices are well established and common practice but the real question is, can we do it better? Or can we do it differently? Especially, if we try to look at it from the animals point of view.

Instead of herding, we should call them. Instead of chasing them, we should socialise them. Instead of darting them, we should train them for an injection. Instead of looking at what we think is best, we should look at what’s best for the animal!

Changing a Zoo’s routine is not easy, but if we listened to the animals, would we still do everything the same way?

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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