Being in a position to work with a variety of different species allows me to observe species I never had the chance to observe before. I learn a lot. Observation is an important part of our day. A head trainer once asked me, “do we really know our animals if we just train them and never observe in free time?”
How do animals respond to each others behaviour? To different species joining their habitat? To new members being added to the environment and new babies being born?
There is a lot to learn through looking at the animals we work with especially at moments where we make changes in the group. As with people, I believe that animals also have the ability to prefer some animals over others. If animals don’t really like each other, for whatever reason, we can make help them accept each other, giving both of them the best lives possible.
It happens fairly often in animal groups, where one animal gets reinforced and the other one does not, regardless if this is unintended. This can easily cause aggression amongst the animals. Especially as it can be the trainers fault. As trainers we have to look at not only what we reinforce and when we do it, but also who we reinforce first. This means knowing the group, an important part of a trainers repertoire.
Over time I have come across many challenges, and one regularly seen, is getting animals comfortable to be with a trainer. Especially when it is not just one animal, but multiple. This is to be achieved with a technique called ‘cooperative feeding’. You have to be constantly busy assessing the state of each individual, seeing who needs more attention than the others. This has happened in our group of maras at Kolmården. Just by observing who is the leader in the group, and which animals do not get along, we eventually reached the goal of having them all around us accepting reinforcement.
There is a technique called Cooperative Feeding:
Cooperative feeding is a constantly ongoing process. We can’t see this technique as a behaviour being trained. Depending on the social group and its individual members it can change day by day how this technique can be used.
This technique works extremely well with introductions, acceptance of group members and further adaptations. For example:
We have four rhinos, one male, two females and a calf. The male is dominated by the females most of the time. This could be for many reasons, but when food is present there is an increase in dominant behaviour. Rhinos eat a majority of their day, which could be a problem when we think about this behaviour from the females. When we call all the rhinos together to the back area we try to make sure that everybody finds it reinforcing enough to come to this smaller area.
When the females know reinforcement is coming, they chase the male further away to have more for themselves. How can we make sure the male finds the call over to the back reinforcing, even though two females are there dominating him? The focus should not be on the male but on the females. We should teach the females to accept the male to be part of the group. When the females run into the smaller area and allow the male to follow, we reinforce the females right away with a hand full of hay. When the male arrives, we reinforce him with a hand full also. Directly after that we give the females more. When we are teaching the females to accept him, the frequency of chasing the male away goes down because they begin to understand, if we accept him, we get more, high value reinforcers.
When this happens, in some cases, the animals start to work even better in a team.
I remember when a baby killer whale was born in France, we trained the mother to retrieve the baby. After a couple of months had passed, we taught her to get the baby and pass through the gate to another pool. How much of a struggle a baby can be in training sessions it didn’t work out well. The other animals were in the back area, in control, but didn’t get reinforced too much until everybody was in place. It took some time and some trials but the mother couldn’t do it. What happened next was remarkable. The matriarch female split from control, swam to the pool where the baby was swimming, used some force, and got that baby within no time to the designated pool. The trainers had a strong system, being very black and white with the consequences and the orcas had a clear understanding of what we wanted from them, especially in this case.
Talking about introductions, I believe they can work better with cooperative feeding. Yes, I agree (and hear you thinking) that the animals need time for themselves to get to know the other species or individuals, and that is correct. But we can help them by pairing more positive experiences to it. When they go into the group for the first time we add a huge amount of reinforcement. We teach the animals, who have to accept this newbie, to accept by a strategy of cooperative feeding. Before we allow them complete free time together we will separate them in control. After a few sessions the animals start to understand when the new animal is present, the higher value reinforcement will come, and so the introduction will go better.
With the capybaras at Kolmården we did a similar thing. We had a new male arrive and introduced him to the group. We saw over time that he would pick on one particular individual. The team asked me to have a look and see how we can get the group to work better. I observed for a little bit and decided to grab the bucket of goodies, reinforcing only when they ignored each other, walking past or turning the other way without aggression. Reinforcing him right away when he ignored everything, and then reinforcing all the other behaviours not connected to the aggression, we would reinforce the others after him and then him again. With some practice from the keepers they started to do the same and saw a drastic change in behaviour over time.
Now Don’t Forget:
Our European bison are another success story, using only cooperative feeding as a strategy to make them accept each other in our training sessions. We saw over time more opportunistic animals, instead of animals who would chase each other away. On reflection this helped us in discovering that this technique really does work with any species, and is more important than we previously thought when working with bigger groups.