Training a wild ibex to wear a collar for research sounds like a simple behaviour but gave us quite a few challenges. Protected contact and small steps helped us on the way to reach the training goal.
By Peter Giljam
In 2018 Kolmården Wildlife Park was approached to assist in a project researching energy expenditure in ibex and how this could be linked with climate change.
We grabbed the opportunity to be part of the project and decided to condition the ibex to wear the collar needed for the study. We chose this above sedating them because of the aspects of animal welfare. This choice turned out to give us more challenges than we would have thought.
Supposedly simple behaviour can be difficult to train
Even though placing a collar on an animal may be seen as a simple behaviour, it was not that easy. The ibex were not used to human contact at all.
So where to start? We began with trying to find out which reinforcers the Alpine Ibex liked best. Because they had never been trained before, we reached for their main food bucket. Their normal grazer pellets worked well, but we wanted to add more variation to increase their motivation to train.
Choosing the Reinforcer
By testing various food reinforcers along the way, we found out that our Alpine ibex like to eat:
- Standard grazer pellets
- Fresh cut grass
- Lucerne pellets
- Deworming pellets (Seasonal)
Separating species to get control of the environment
The ibex shared the enclosure with ostrich, an often inquisitive species that could affect our training. So before even starting the training with the ibex, we had to condition the ostriches to a call over to get control of the environment. Now, as the ostriches were out of the picture, we could go back to ibex training.
Our goal was to have 3 males and 3 females wearing the collar for the study. From a group of 30 individuals, we thought this would be achievable. But we soon realised it was a bit amitious, even with up to three training sessions a day. We wanted to do the training in protected contact as the male ibex have huge horns and can weigh up to 120 kg.
We already knew how to build a Fallow Deer box, so we just adjusted the layout for the ibex. We added removable feeding trays and added a safety barrier made from wood to prevent a headbutt from those horns.
Cooperative feeding as foundation
First of all we had to get the animals used to the boxes. In the very beginning, we just used the boxes without the safety barrier for the horns. We used 2 trainers: one focusing on the 3 males and the other on the 27 other animals.
In ibex herds, the males are the ones deciding for the whole flock. Which means, that even though we would only train 3 animals for the collars, we had to think about cooperative feeding for them plus the rest of the group.
Want to know more about cooperative feeding? Click here.
We discovered quickly that one of the males was the boss, his name was “Mr. Green” because of a green ID tag in his ear. He was a young male that had fully grown horns and instantly showed who is the hierarchy leader over the other animals. We began by reinforcing his cooperative feeding and soon enough he began to give more attention to us than he did to the other two males.
Now we needed the males to become comfortable standing stationary in one of the boxes. To make this clearer to the animals we decided that when the ibex had chosen a box, that was “his” box and couldn’t move to one of the others. Mr. Green understood this quickly. At the beginning, the ibex didn’t want us to come close when feeding them. We had to add food when they came near to the boxes and when they started to move towards us, we would back up. It took a lot of time before the animals were comfortable to come into the boxes before we added reinforcement.
One success discovers a new challenge
As time and training progressed, we realised we were continually feeding to keep the animals stationed, rather than reinforcing decisions, and it was causing the animals to gain weight. This was a side effect we were extremely conscious of whilst using pelleted feed, and we had to adjust our plan.
We wanted to teach the animals ‘do something to get something’, and took some steps back in the training to do this. At the same time we had to remember we had a limited time frame with the study. We tried for 2 weeks, and only regressed during this period. We made a decision to speed the process up involving continuous feeding again with using negative reinforcement. To do this we would present the collar to the animal and remove it whenever the animals were relaxed, eventually being able to reinforce when the collar was presented and the animal was calm.
The food trays we used were built ourselves and were easily detachable. If an ibex decided to move box we could easily remove any reinforcement that was remaining, discouraging the displacement behaviour.
Step by step to success
Mr. Green was first wearing the collar, then the other males slowly followed. We had to make a protocol for when the ibex didn’t allow us to take off the collar. We reinforced their choices to come back to us with the collar. After many practices we left them on for an X amount of time and then asked them to come back so we could take them off again.
We tried one of the other males. This one wasn’t completely done yet but the confident behaviour he showed us helped us decide to just try. With success we had our 2nd animal wearing a collar.
The student could collect her first set of data and for the keepers it showed enclosure usage in the 3 hectare exhibit.
Research and welfare benefit should complement each other
Research should have a welfare benefit to the animal, especially in modern zoos. We need to constantly think of the impacts it can have on the animal along with what the keepers and zoo can gain from a project. We decided to train the ibex to wear a collar over sedation for their welfare but then gained a welfare challenge in the reinforcer. Weighing up those welfare decisions – on one hand the animals began to gain weight, which we had to manage closely post study. But on the other hand, it allowed a previously untrained species at Kolmården the opportunity to gain cognitive enrichment and most definitely improved the keepers relationship with them.
This research has given the keepers an understanding of the exhibit use by the ibex which directly reflected to enrichment applied in the exhibit. Knowing this, the keepers understood the effect of their enrichment and started to do more of it in different areas to use the whole exhibit for the animals.
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