Written by Cheridan Mathers – Zoo Curator at Hamilton Zoo, NZ

If you were to ask a zookeeper what they struggled with most in their job – the answer is probably going to be time. Time, to get all the things done in a day that they’ve planned out. Daily cleans, diets, water blasting, meetings, those weeds you need to get rid of, making complex enrichment devices and of course, training.

Cheridan Mathers and Poppy

Training often comes with a whole other host of conditions, such as writing up a plan, getting buy in for other members of the team and creating time for training sessions. However, if time is constantly an issue for most zookeepers, how can we prevent training from becoming another thing that we’ll squeeze in if we have time.

The answer can and should be, to incorporate it into our routines. In my experience the shortest sessions have been the most beneficial towards developing a behaviour, as well as being the most enjoyable. Not every experience has been like this, but there have been many times that I have sped through my routine so I can create training time, gotten to the enclosure and it’s been, quite frankly, a flop of a session. There could be multiple factors that may have influenced this – time of day, satiation of the animals, my own energy – this list goes on and is a whole other discussion point. The biggest lesson that I have taken away from this, is that I realised I had hindered my own training development and that of the animals I worked with; because I thought that training had to be at a certain and planned time of the day. This resulted in training slipping down the ladder of tasks to do for the day because other things seemed to have taken up all of my time. 

I know this will be a similar sentiment felt by others, so how can this be changed? Routine. The thing that can feel like it’s a hinderance to training sessions, can also be a great facilitator for them if you just think a little differently about the way you train. Here are some tips to help you incorporate training into your daily routines and stop you from saying you just don’t have the time!

1. Don’t forget about your bank account

You often hear about the bank account you have with your animals. ‘Depositing’ into it with positive interactions and experiences, will mean that when you need to make a ‘withdrawal’ you don’t lose or break a relationship. The foundation work that you do with your animals will help build trust, good experiences and ultimately your ‘bank account’ which will benefit your training. 

In the below video, you see the keeper has stationed the birds beside their feeding area to exchange the bowl which is a daily occurrence to limit aggression around the food bowl. You can also see a keeper calling a pair of sun conures down to their hand for some reinforcement. The birds that are comfortable doing this will stay even when the reinforcer has been finished. The third bird seen in the first part of the video is in the process of building that trust. If you were to slightly modify the already existing behaviours by adding a cue or taking another step further and further away from the perch you have trained your birds or station and a call over! The repetition will mean you can build a strong foundation.

2. Keep it simple

Having a training plan is essential, but by keeping some behaviours simple, they can be easily incorporated into your daily routines. This could help with nervous or aggressive animals; it could even save you time if all your animal wants to do is ‘help’ with your cleaning by climbing on your equipment.

In the below video you see a keeper stationing a female eclectus parrot so he can continue to clean the enclosure undisturbed. Even when she has finished her reinforcer and the male eclectus comes to join her at the perch, she stays at the station and is again reinforced by the trainer. This behaviour is not only useful in this cleaning situation, but it could also be utilized when weighing individuals or doing a different training session with another animal at the same time. 

3. Be observant

Monitoring your animals’ behaviour is essential for many aspects of zookeeping, this includes training. If you were to do a session with an animal that was worked up due to possible aggressive, or stressful situations – chances are that the session isn’t going to go well and the result may be negative for both the animal and trainer. It can be very easy to be a classic keeper running from one task to the next, head down, focused on the task at hand – have you now missed something important? So, pay attention to your animals and be flexible with your training times – it will pay off by utilising the time you have efficiently.

4. Repetition

Now, not everyone is going to have access to lots of equipment all of the time, animal weigh scales for example can be a hot commodity! However, thinking outside of the box can be hugely beneficial. By coupling things like handfeeding parts of diets on a platform or device that you could either put onto or replace with scales, could be a very simple way of training a weighing behaviour. Having something like that in place can also be a prompter for you to take a few minutes out of your day to do a training session.

In the above video you see a keeper offering part of the daily diet – marmoset gum – by hand feeding it on ‘dummy’ scales. The pygmy marmosets have this in their enclosure 24/7 and are regularly feed on or near it, either by hand or in feeders. This can now be developed into a trained behaviour as the desensitisation has already taken place. Every week this ‘dummy’ scale is replaced by the real thing and the animals perform the same behaviour. So animals may be aware of the change between real and fake but in this instance the dummy scales work.

5. Utilising every opportunity

A really simple tip is to think about all of the interactions you have with an animal throughout the day. From entering an enclosure, to cleaning and putting out food – there may be 10 plus opportunities to incorporate a training session into your routine.

In the video you see the keeper calling an African-crested porcupine out of her den during the middle of the day. Usually a nocturnal species, the call over signal has been successfully reinforced and she will come out to handfeed before getting the rest of her diet portion. If you fed out a diet at least three times a day, that’s three training sessions under your belt – and that’s just for one animal.

6. Encourage others

Training is a very rewarding aspect to our jobs, not only for being able to work and build relationships with a range of amazing animals. But also, from the people we get to work with and learn from. Some of the best discussions and experiences I have had at work have been times when I have been able to collaborate with others on training. Creating time for group sessions is a fantastic way to build up relationships with colleagues and have a positive culture of training established within your team. Dividing up behaviours rather than species is also a fantastic way to encourage training within your team. One trainers experience with one animal for a certain behaviour, maybe be completely different for another behaviour with a different trainer. These different experiences can help us get an understanding of the individual animal and help develop behaviours even further.

These are some tips that have worked for us and some motivation to overcome the time issue, try and think outside the box and utilise your routines. Ensuring the important work around training is done – both for the animal’s enjoyment and benefit, but also the trainers.

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