My name is Grant and I’ve been a zookeeper for little over 11 years. I was lucky enough to start my career at one of the oldest, most well-known zoos in the UK, ZSL London Zoo. I started off in the Herpetology Department, which was one of the best things I could hope for. The more I worked with reptiles and amphibians the more my passion grew.
Animal training and enrichment were relatively new concepts to me when I began. It was only after speaking to colleagues, looking things up online and reading books, that I discovered the fascinating world of behavioural management. At the time, reptile and amphibian training was relatively new or at least not widely talked about and shared in mainstream facets. Now there are fantastic blogs, Youtube videos and Facebook groups like Reptelligence. So a lot of my beginnings were trial and error. Even as I look back now, there are many things I would change about the training I used to apply, not because it was necessarily wrong but because I’ve developed and learnt so much more since. When colleagues ask “is there a better way?”, my answer is that just because something works doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best for the animal.
For those of you who read this blog, you may have trained a domestic pet or an exotic animal in the past, but do you think you could train a Komodo dragon? The science for how animals learn is the same whether it’s a dog, cat, killer whale or Komodo dragon. In my experience, many captive reptiles have a more than healthy appetite. Always ready for food, they will happily eat even after they’ve just eaten. So starting out as a novice trainer with my clicker, my target stick and my animals’ preferred food, I was ready to dive right in. In my opinion, animals strongly motivated by food are definitely easier to train. Since then, working with more ‘challenging’ animals who aren’t necessarily motivated by food, are quickly satiated or are very selective has been a great learning curve. It’s important to remember that while some reptiles may burn off their food quickly, others might not, so make sure your reinforcement schedule is appropriate and fits in with their dietary and nutritional requirements.
So where did I start? I made a list of animals I thought would be suitable to train based on what welfare benefit it would have to the animal, what we required as a section (safety/husbandry/daily management/veterinary), and what would be the easiest for me to develop my skills. At the time there were several species I thought would be good candidates for training. Philippine crocodiles, Galapagos tortoises, Caiman lizards, Iguanas, and Monitors including Komodos. Our Komodo dragon Raja, had already had been target trained. For me monitor lizards are up there as one of my favourite animals to work with. They’re intelligent, charismatic, switched on, lots of attitude and have a natural curiosity.
Foundation behaviours are where we started – targets, A to B’s, stationing, call overs, and boxing, all generally used for shifting or occupying potential dangerous animals to, you guessed it, clean windows! It was also important to try and draw a clear distinction between feeding and non-feeding events to limit any potentially harmful interactions. Door rushing, following around/being overly confident, and mouthing, are all common issues that I have experienced.
It’s as simple as that, you now have an animal that has learnt, if I rush the door, I’ll get food! That’s where targeting or auditory cues will help. It will clearly communicate to the animal that food is present or likely to be expected, and the times the target is absent or no cue is made, the animal is unlikely to have a feeding response and will most likely continue with what it’s doing, which is usually basking.
One of my learnings while training reptiles was to be aware of the priority of their sensory modalities. Training a giant tortoise vs a crocodile for example, one is more visual, whereas the other one is very sensitive to auditory cues. That’s not to say crocodilians don’t have excellent eyesight – most likely they’ll see you before you see them, but I’ve had great successes pairing auditory cues with specific meanings e.g. feeding and non-feeding events. In my experience I have found Chelonia to be very visual – they can often spot a brightly coloured object from a distance, but I have also used a cow bell as a recall, although depending on the species, it can take them a bit of time to respond, like with most training patience is key.
Komodo dragons are another very visual species. It’s important to remember reptiles and amphibians are ecothermic and cannot generate their own body heat. Planning what time of day you will train will determine how successful you are. Having a training session first thing in the morning, especially after a cool evening, you need to be aware your animals may be slower to respond, likewise, training in the heat of the mid afternoon summer sun, you need to be ready to respond promptly and be prepared for a potentially fired up dragon!
Animals are learning all the time and that includes reptiles. Snakes are one such reptile that people often are looking for examples of successful training. Training is a change or response in behaviour at the presence of a stimulus. Often with captive reptiles, that stimulus is you. You mean food, you mean water, you mean something that is often meaningful for that animal and snakes are no different.
While I never officially trained a snake to respond to a ‘target’, there were definite signs that snakes learn and therefore respond accordingly. There’s an excellent blog regarding routines and how they can affect our animals, which I recommend reading. Click HERE. At many collections, snakes, dependant on species and size, are fed around once a week and it was often in the afternoon after I had finished my daily servicing. With the opening of a slide at a specific time of day, on a certain day of the week, before a prey item was presented, the snake would often be expectantly waiting, usually in an S position ready to strike at anything that moved.
The movement, vibration of the door, the time of day, the day itself, were all precursors to tell the animal that food was expected. That behaviour would then be reinforced with the delivery of the food. Body language is key when understanding animal behaviour and luckily snakes are often very clear and deliberate with their intentions. So what to do when a snake thinks you are there with some food and you just want to get in and clean a pond or wash a window and don’t fancy being bitten? Often a gentle touch along the body with a snake hook, or a spray of water to drink. That was often enough for the snake to understand that food was not present and they would often relax their body position and enjoy their drink or move off.
The best part of zookeeping is the animals but also the people. It’s not uncommon for zookeepers to say “I don’t like people, so I work with animals”. But for me if I did this job alone, I wouldn’t have learnt as much as I have, working alongside others. The people you surround yourself with, whether by choice or chance, can shape who you are as a person and the same goes for how you develop as a keeper. Our field is always changing, there are so many aspects to caring for animals, that if we didn’t talk, read, watch, listen or share, then progression would be tough and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. Look for like-minded people, and challenge what they say.