Animals have played an integral part in the lives of humans for thousands of years. It’s even thought that cavemen had and care for dogs, the ancient Egyptians and their relationship with cats depicted in hieroglyphics and there are well known tribes who worked with birds of prey and horses for centuries. Even the first zoos came into existence around the 18 century.
Since then much has changed in the way we care for animals. We study our animals to learn more about how they behave. Animal welfare is at the forefront of modern animal care and that’s truer today than ever before. Zoos hire welfare coordinators and behavioural husbandry managers to ensure high welfare standards for their animals and look at how they can continue to improve.
So how can we improve the welfare of the animals we work with?
As zookeepers we are constantly respondin to behaviour at any given time, this is one of the cons to classical conditioning, because it happens all the time. Acknowledging an animal as you pass by can reinforce them hang off a door. Animals discover motivations connected to situations and therefore they start demonstrating behaviours we might not have seen before. It’s up to us to discover where they came from and to make an action plan if we think the behaviour is undesirable or unhealthy for the animal physically or mentally.
A Simple Call Over
Small things can change the world. In many of our articles we talk a lot about foundation behaviours. A simple behaviour like a call over helps animal welfare in so many ways. Training a call over behaviour is not very difficult to do but it comes with many advantages:
- Shifting animals
- Implementing an enrichment program
- Introducing new members
- Veterinarian check
- Mental enrichment
- Building relationships
- Creating opportunistic animals
Just by changing the way we work with animals can drastically improve their welfare. In many collections there are discussions around the amount of time we spend training our animals. Some places see it as an integral part of an animals daily life, other think we should let the animals act how they would in the wild and that close relationships can effect behaviours like breeding or pair bonding. Animal training should be an add on to the life the animal lives. It should not be the main focus in the animals day. Best case scenario we want animals to have a large variety of behavioural diversity within our collections and stereotypic behavior doesn’t fit. But if we don’t know enough about the behavioural diversity we can’t conclude why a stereotypic behaviour happens. On the other hand we know stereotypic behaviour is often a coping mechanism. But what is the animal try to cope with and how can we find out?
Animal Training is Not The Main Topic of Welfare
The reason animal training shouldn’t be their main part of their day, is because the effect constant training has on behavioural diversity. The animals will pay more attention to us than doing their own thing. They will be less social with each other and seek more attention from the trainer, because they’ve learnt training is more fun than doing their own thing, and at this stage training doesn’t create a welfare benefit anymore.
The most common place problems with behaviour diversity like this occur can occur are in the dog world. Recently I got to meet a puppy and its trainer. The trainer explained how she is trying to teach him to do things on his own and why this is important. The most important part for this trainer is that she can leave the animal alone for X amount of time. This has to be taught to an animal, meaning every time the animal plays on his own he will get reinforced. When the animal seeks attention he will be ignored. She is constantly changing the enrichment which gives the dog more challenges and practices problem solving.
Enriching the Environment
We should try and encourage more of this behaviour diversity with the animals in our zoos. This is where species specific enrichment helps us, but if we break it down even further, we should start at enclosure design.
In 1907, Carl Hagenbeck, developed the idea to move away from concrete cages and create a more naturalistic approach to the design of an enclosure. If we are able to change the enrichment frequently we are then able to challenge the animal constantly. In some collections keepers are looking to be able to attach and de-attach objects in an exhibit quickly and easily, which saves time and makes it easier for us to change so much within an exhibit.
Nutrition is Part of Welfare
Nutrition is another aspect of animal care that we have to take a closer look into, especially, when training our animals. The fact that an animal likes a specific food type a lot, shouldn’t be the reason why the animal gets it. We have to look more in-depth into what we feed our animals and also what “healthy” reinforcers we can use for training. I once was told by a trainer that giraffes love bananas and that’s what we train them with. I later discovered that bananas are very bad for giraffe. So although the training might be good for a certain aspect of their welfare the reinforcement is not.
Find a Reason and Reassess
Animal training and enrichment is not just “look how much the animal seems to enjoy it” it is about the reasons why we do it, to improve welfare. Ensuring our animals are healthy and knowing which behaviours they commonly express can give us an indication to whether we are doing a good job. It’s important to ask yourself, does the animal express natural behaviours when we are around, without constantly seeking attention? Do we apply enrichment that elicits the desired behaviours we are looking for? Is the nutrition correct? The enclosure suitable? What behaviour diversity choices are available to our animals? Everything we do should be a welfare benefit to the animals we work with!
Any questions about the topics in this article or about training in general? Send us an email or join our Facebook group. Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy, for more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website zoospensefull.com