The EAZA Welfare conference is a great conference to better yourself and your knowledge regarding animal welfare. Zoospensefull attended this conference a couple years ago. Often, conferences like these are hosted at zoos and everyone’s favourite part is to go through the zoo as the people that attend are animal lovers and it’s a good way to break up the day.

Asian Elephants on sand substrate at Kolmården Wildlife Park, Sweden

During our tour we stopped at the elephants, where the staff explained a little bit about how and when they moved into working in protective contact with their elephants. During the discussion, it came up if sand is a good substrate for the elephants and in how it affects their feet. The feet of the elephants can develop abscesses quickly, especially if they do not have the correct substrate. Because of this many zoos provide their elephants with daily care, to help keep track of the health of the elephants feet.

The question is this, is the training we do with our animals proactive behaviour management or not? Let us say our exhibits were designed with species appropriate substrates, perching etc. Would that mean the problems might never arise, or at least be more infrequent. Are we reacting to an already existing problem instead of mitigating against the problem before it arises. 

When initially working with fur seals, we very much focused our training on delivering a highly entertaining and educational presentation for the public. Behind the scenes we trained the animals to receive eye drops as they seemed to have some issues with their eye health. We then discovered that Cleo, a 12 year old female fur seal, started to behave unusually. We asked the vet come and see and gave us some medication that would help. He also asked if we could get blood from her, so we started the training for blood sampling. We also trained ultrasound, tubing and radiography. Over time we did manage to reach our training goals, even though Cleo already needed more help then we could give. We tried to do everything we could and condition her to any behaviour that would help with diagnosis. While planning to perform an ultrasound on her chest to see her heart, she unfortunately passed away over night.

Successful blood sample from Cleo
Another behaviour we conditioned Cleo for was tubing. This to add more water in her body what could help her with the problem we were looking for.

We took the blood samples and photos we had from the ultrasound and put them next to another healthy animal to compare. During the course of Cleo’s treatment we had been reacting to an already existing problem. What we should be doing with the individuals we work with, is have a healthy personal insight into how the animal looks from the inside. We made a list of behaviours we thought were very important to have to reach this goal: blood sampling, body checks, ultrasound, radiography, scale, eye swabs and palpation. This would give us the information we need to compare against if or when the animal becomes unwell. 

We like to train the fun behaviours but the behaviours that are needed for the health of the animal are forgotten or not implemented until an issue presents itself. It then becomes reactive or retro active behaviour management.

We trainers have to become more skilled in looking at what each potential action has for an opposite reaction. If you have animals only walking on concrete, they will develop foot problems over time, so should we be training regular foot checks and hoof care. If we give too much sugary foods to a tapir, it is likely to develop issues with its teeth, instead of providing it treatment for tooth lose, teach it to open its mouth and look at the diet before the problem even arises. 

Proactive behaviour management does exist if we turn the tables around. Animals are trained for injections, even though they do not need an injection. Perhaps the first thing we should teach an animal is to accept an injection. This way, when we have to put the animal under anaesthetic, we can do it stress free and it allows us to check their whole body. Over time we will teach the animal a body check, this is an example of a proactive process. 

We want animals to succeed and not just when their health and wellbeing depends on it. There are still many areas of animal training where we have to think differently. The good news is that this is changing. Especially with the domesticated animals, even with dogs there is still a lot to learn when it comes to proactive management. Many of our best friends at home are afraid of the vet. Or that moment that we discover that the animal is afraid of fire works and we all of a sudden have to fix it. But the dog has been trained to spin through your legs and sit, it’s all about perspective. How can we be more proactive with our animals?

We can spend all of our time working on the problems once they’ve developed, or we can be proactive and spend the time making sure the problems never arise. – Ocean Embassy, IMATA 2009

It is important that we are in some way proactive within our behaviour management system. For example, we build relationships, we avoid negative consequences for the animals we work with and use variable schedules when we work with our animals. All these are proactive to the learning ability of the animal. Proactive behaviour management in many instances is trying to look at it from the big picture. We get better and better through experience, observation and science to determine what is best for the animals we work with, and proactive instead of reactive will help raise the net welfare of the animals in our care.

If you look at the small goals, for example training a behaviour, regardless if this is reactive or proactive management, you can be proactive within your training through record keeping and planning. It’s all depending on how you look at it but it is important to ask ourselves, are we really ahead of problems that are occurring with our animals such as stereotypic behaviour, medical problems or even huge aggression fall outs, or are we just being reactive?

Categories: Trainer Talk


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.