Kolmårdens Wildlife Park is a zoo located south of Stockholm on the rocks of Sweden. Covering 370 acres they can call themselves the biggest zoo in Scandinavia. The zoo doesn’t have many species but the species they have are either housed in quite big groups or in mixed species exhibits. The zoo was built in 1965 with the idea that visitors could take a walk through the forest while looking at animals. Since that time many things have changed, not only exhibits and the animal collection but also the behavioural management.

Recently, I had a chat with one of my very good friends from Scotland. We talked about time management and how much time Kolmården keepers have saved through training. She asked me if we had any data about the time we’ve saved, to be honest, we don’t. But when I start to think about it, I can make some calculations with what we have saved so far.

The Lions

One of the videos that came out some time in the beginning of 2016 was the recall video of our lions. If you haven’t seen it, check it out below. Apart from the fact that this behaviour helps us in dangerous situations, it also saved us a lot of time. We went from about 30 minutes calling animals, to the animals responding to within a minute. This saved us 29 minutes which allowed us to do extra jobs on the department such as enrichment, training or managing of other species. We don’t need more than 2 keepers which helps the efficiency drastically. This also allowed the staff to perform the recall at any given time in the day. So in an emergency, like a sudden change in the weather, we no longer require 4 keepers. Can you imagine how much time we saved across the whole zoo?

The Chimpanzees

Previously, I posted a video of 21 chimpanzees responding incredibly fast to a recall the keepers have trained. This behaviour wasn’t only trained for safety, we also had to think about a couple more things. One of the main goals was how we could save more time across the department. Initially we had to get our animals to respond calmly to us when walking in, so every scream they made was ignored and all calm behaviours were reinforced. We decided to change the behaviour management for this department only 3 years ago. We have had many meetings since to discuss behavioural management requirements for the chimpanzees. Eventually it was decided that we needed to train 3 different signals.

One was for an emergency recall, another was for the separation in subgroups, the third was a call over. Each of them with a different criteria but the time management remained fairly constant. When we established our first behaviour, we discovered that we went from 40 minutes to get animals to shift for cleaning, to less than 3 minutes. This allowed us to save 37 minutes. These behaviours can be done with 2 trainers which helps the efficiency, and on top of that, we are not dependant on a specific time so we can do it whenever we want.

The Fallow Deers

About a year ago in the hoofstock department, they started training some of their animals as well. One of them was as you might have seen in this blog, the fallow deer. Since this blog, we have strengthened our call over response for those animals. The main behavioural goal for the fallow deer was hoof trimming but getting into the breeding season we had to take a step back for safety. We definitely didn’t want to stop training and started focusing on a call over. The exhibit itself is approximately 5-6 acres and finding 34 fallow deers is quite a lengthy task. Initially, in order for the keepers to find all 34 deer they had to drive in a couple circles around the exhibit. On average it took around 20-25 minutes each time they feed the deer, which is twice a day. The call over is now established and going very well.

Now counting all the deer takes no more than 5 minutes on average, the keepers save about 15-20 minutes each feed by using this behaviour. This means 2 keepers each save 30-40 mins per feed twice a day, so that means around 1hr-1.20hr each day saved, that can be utilised elsewhere.

The Bisons

Another species on the hoofstock department are the European Bison. Again the keepers used to have to wait up to 20 mins + for animals to come over or shift. The keepers got together and discussed how they could make this faster and more efficient. It was decided to add a signal for the bison to come towards the keepers, this call over was done in different places around the exhibit. We also conditioned them to eat from our hands or a plastic bowl, which helped us with getting close up, visual inspections. These behaviours soon paid off, as we noticed the big male having problems with his leg. The vet was called and we decided to dart the animal so the vet could make a proper diagnosis. I’m not necessarily a big fan of darting, especially herd animals, but the cool part was that after the big male fell asleep, the rest of the group were asked to come off exhibit and did so successfully.

Normally the vet and keepers would drive into the exhibit to try and have a look. Imagine 4 people getting into a jeep, driving around, in the hopes of getting the bison to come close enough for the vet to see the issue. Let’s say the whole procedure takes 15 mins, that means 4 staff x 15 mins, it can easily add up to an hour of time. Compare this to where we are today, 1 keeper asks the animals to come over, which takes him approximately 2 minutes, the vet can then inspect the bison and easily check the leg of the big male. I wouldn’t even know where to start to calculate the time we saved when we darted the male and asked the other animals to come off exhibit?!

The Ostriches

You wouldn’t look at an ostrich and think of a trained animal. However, what we saw with ours is how easy life can be to manage these big birds when training is implemented into their routine. We trained them to be on a recall, this helped us to carry out a daily health check of the 4 chicks and 3 adults without having to “round up” the birds. Using this recall we also managed to obtain, blood and DNA samples for sexing and marking. Training a recall and separation with the ostrich not only saved us time during our daily checks but also reduced any stress for the chicks and adults. All the birds feel comfortable to come over to the keepers, which because of the positive reinforcement training method, meant their daily management became easier and could be carried out by staff at all levels, not just senior members of the team.

We probably spent between 5 and 10 mins a day extra to train the recall, which took around 3 weeks. This small amount of time and effort has allowed us to gain back hours. We managed to mark and DNA one baby a day, which took the team no more than 10 mins. Before this procedure used to take a few hours and was a cause of a lot of stress for the birds. It also saved us time when counting the animals. We could save anywhere between 2-15 minutes a day trying to find and make sure we had all 4 chicks. – George Goldspink

By conditioning the animals, we as keepers can save quite a bit of time. It doesn’t take that much time to condition these animals to the behaviours outlined above; the only changes we have to make is how we look at our feeding and what behaviour we are looking for. More often than not, animals do the behaviour you want to see, especially if we’re talking about shifting. Medical training is a different story, but let’s establish some easy control first, so we gain enough time that we are able to train the medical procedures what will save the zoo even more time.

There are plenty more stories in our zoo but these stories are the special ones because of the species, keepers and time we put in there and the amount we got back!

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    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!


    PeterGiljam · January 2, 2019 at 02:20

    Thank you! Yes, it has been working very well. We try a lot of different things with the animals at Kolmården. So far so good!

    Terry Golson · January 2, 2019 at 01:26

    What a great post! I learned a lot by seeing the strategies for the different species. Training lions to go in their house instead of up to the keeper was smart 🙂

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