Mixed species exhibits are regularly found in modern zoos worldwide, when done correctly they can look stunningly beautiful and have a range of benefits. Having visited a fair amount of zoos it’s fascinating to see how and what zoos have put together. Often to give a more natural look to an exhibit, for both the animals and the visitors. Some great mixed species exhibits that stand out are the Gorilla and Red-Capped Mangabey at Dublin Zoo, along with the fantastic African savannah, including African elephants, at Borås Djurpark on the west coast of Sweden.
Mixed species exhibits seem to be the trend moving forward. Not only creating a ‘wilder’ look for the guests, but a more natural lifestyle for many animals. However, when you look at several aspects of animal welfare – nutrition, training, enrichment for example, there could certainly be some cons. It’s very enriching to have different species housed together but we can’t forget, that to a certain extent, over time these animals will become habituated to each other.
At Kolmårdens Djurpark there are eight, large, mixed species exhibits, making everything a whole lot more challenging for the trainers in the park. Some exhibits are over 5 acres, with a big variety of animals. Now imagine that most of these mixed species exhibits include grazing or browsing animals, who have access to wild food all day long. This can make motivation for training a lot trickier, and their enrichment harder. Even though having several species cohabiting together can be seen as enriching enough, we have to think about what each species needs in regards to nutrition. When we want to do food enrichment, this doesn’t make it easy. Even though it may be tough, there is “ALWAYS A WAY” of doing something.
When talking to the animal teams we try to decide first which species is a main priority, and then which species we can take further with other behaviours. I like to aim high, so there are many departments where we really try to challenge ourselves, just to see what happens when we try these new things. I believe that, like our animals, us trainers learn from trial and error. Even the most successful people don’t always get it right! Training is easy at times, but finding a structure for an exhibit that’s houses 30+ animals and 5 different species is quite the challenge.
Some goals, that we all came to agree on here at the zoo, were that there are some clear foundation behaviours we should be starting with. Call overs/recalls for example. These behaviours are a necessity, simply to get the animals to us. Without even having that, we do not have animals to train. Alongside these a start of session signal can be necessary in the management of mixed exhibit. One of the strategies we have implemented in one of these exhibits, is to have multiple recalls for each separate species. This allows us to move a certain species around the exhibit with ease, whilst leaving the other species unaffected. This is shown in the video below with our desert section – separating our camels and kulan easily. We decided to start with call overs to a particular position in the exhibit, and afterwards, these can be changed for variation and efficiency.
At Kolmårdens Djurpark it is important to maintain our inventiveness when managing our animals. On the hoofstock team they have the most mixed species exhibits, with over 300 individuals, not to mention only being a team of 12 full time staff. This may not sound like a recipe for success, but working with what we have, they do a great job. The hardest part is picking which animals to focus on first. We cannot begin with a broad focus on all of these 300+ animals until we have control over just a couple species at first. We all have to start somewhere.
When managing a mixed species exhibit, we need to think about conditioning the different species on and off cue at the same time. When we are conditioning the first recall with the first set of animals (start of session signal if you wish) you don’t have to reinforce the other species just yet, because they do not know what it means. When you start your second signal you will want to reinforce the other species for staying on the exhibit, however this can have some collisions in the future. When the animals start to discover that particular signals mean reinforcement, they might interfere with the animals we actually want to be called over. It is debatable if this will be the best strategy, especially with regards to grazers who eat all day long. Maybe we do not have to reinforce them for not responding, simply because they are already busy eating. As long as they do not understand that the trainer has something better than what they are currently eating, we’re OK. This is shown well in the camel and kulan video earlier.
The idea is to ultimately train the animals mind sets. To change the reinforcement each time should create the curiosity enough for the animals to come us. This is what motivates our animals, and if done correctly there will be no prediction from them in what the reinforcement will be. This is the challenge that arises when we start the second recall signal for another species.
The next question is regularly – what do we want once we’ve trained species seperation? Ideally you’d be able to separate all animals individually? That would be great, however, most of the time with larger herds or the set ups of houses for animals it is not possible. Name recognition could be a great solution, allowing us to select an animal with ease. It’s not always as easy as ‘let’s separate them to train’, we must remember we need to train this animal to be comfortable being alone, especially when they are group animals. It is important to take issues like this step by step and base development on each individual.
In this video you see a trainer at Borås Zoo in Sweden with great control over the tigers, allowing him to separate the animals himself. The separated tiger stays calm and waits for the trainer to return whilst the other tiger is trained.
Teamwork is a necessity and, in many of these cases, thinking outside the box. Anything is possible when you put your mind to it.