For those of you who work in zoos, what if I told you that zookeepers don’t exist?

In my current role at Kolmården Wildlife Park we try to train as many animals as possible. I am constantly working very closely with the keepers in a team, to help develop training plans and I often come across quite a few challenges. Comments like “we don’t have time”, “we don’t have enough people”, “that’s not a priority” are used as excuses very often. 

My answer is always, ‘Don’t you have to feed them?’ 

Animals learn by previous outcomes. This helps the animal survive in the environment they are in. Experiences are important regardless if they are good or not. Animals are constantly learning and behaving.

Humans have an instinctive survival like many other species have. We know what we can eat and what we should’t eat; what is safe or what we should avoid due to dangerous outcomes. We also know that particular outcomes may result in an elevation of mood.

How do we know all these things?

I find that a lot has to do with connecting the dots. Let’s say you eat something and your get an upset stomach, they may mean you think twice before eating it again. Or when you eat something that tastes delicious, often you want more of it. There is an association between you eating and the satisfaction that comes afterwards. This accounts for the behaviour we show on a daily base. When I work, I get payed, when I don’t work, most likely I don’t get paid. There is a lot of associations going on in the world we are living in. People are made by their experiences and the outcomes of their actions, this is called associative learning.

Associative Learning or Classical Conditioning was discovered by I. Pavlov in the 1800s with his salivation experiment with dogs. He started to learn how animals associate events. He concluded that he might have discovered how animals learn. 

“Classical Conditioning – A type of learning in which a conditioned stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus to elicit a reflex response or respondent behaviour.”

Today your job is to go and see the animals before your zoo or collection opens. When beginning your routine, one of your first tasks after checking the animals are in their enclosures and alive and well, is to give your animals the first their breakfast. Often with many species, every time you enter an exhibit, the animals know exactly what to expect. So much so that before you’ve even entered the enclosure they might start looking for you, when they hear the squeaking sound of the door opening or keys or a vehicle approaching. They then usually run to a position where they most likely get fed. This position is determent by the keeper, often for ease of counting animals or just out of efficiency. After feeding one species, you go to the next one often following your section routine, exactly how it has been done for years. Driving to the next exhibit with animals already waiting for the food is a clear indication that animals associate events happening.

“Association – An aspect of learning in which two or more stimuli events or ideas become connected through being presented at the same time.”

Behaviour happens all the time if we want it to or not. This means while feeding the animals on a daily base we are actually reinforcing some kind of behaviour good or bad.

Does that mean we are zookeepers or are we trainers?

Zookeeping comes from a long history and is has been a growing profession due to the knowledge we collect about the animals and their behaviour. The difference today is that we are more busy with the well-being and emotions of the animals. Behavioural observations, associations between events, etc. become more important in todays profession of zoo keeping.

When going through our daily routines we have to start thinking about what effect we have on the animals while doing our feeding rounds. Animals associate everything and it happens all the time, whether we want it or not.

Modern zookeepers are constantly seeking to improve standards in welfare and husbandry. Coming up with better ways and ideas to have a positive effect of the lives of the animals we take care of. At Kolmårdens Wildlife Park we are becoming more and more occupied with associative learning (Classical Conditioning). Whenever you enter an enclosure, you need to know what the animals are doing before entering; because you might be reinforcing a behaviour you actually do not want. (Eg. Hanging on a door, being aggressive to a conspecific).

“We can’t just feed the animals anymore we have to think further than this”.

Several years ago I was at a zoo where I observed a keeper doing his round of feeding. While watching him at the Giant Otter exhibit, where he was just going to ‘feed’ the animals, the otters came over to him immediately making many vocalisations from excitement. After every fish that was given, the animals would eat it come back. Each animal with their own little ‘show’ for the keeper, from dancing to head banging to screaming; basically, he was training the otters to perform a ‘show’ for him. What might look incredibly funny for the audience, in reality these are superstitious behaviours. Just ‘feeding’ doesn’t exist anymore.

If we observe before we feed and add some rules to what to look for, we are training our animals already. We have to feed them at least once maybe twice a day, or sometimes upwards of three times a day. This eliminates the excuse of no time, no people, or other priorities. You could actually save a lot more time just by looking at your feeding routines differently. Read here what effect it can have on your time management!

Zookeepers are animal trainers whether you want to be a trainer or not.

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