The ability to recall animals in an emergency is becoming more and more important in modern zoos. Visitors seem to behave more recklessly often with selfies being more important than personal safety. The use of social media often encourages people to push their luck to get ‘the shot’. This behaviour creates challenges for the modern zoo, especially those which rely on the public to maintain a safe distance from enclosures and respect lower barrier fences. Safety is the driving force for any modern Zoo but not just safety for the public but for the animals and their keepers.

The Peacocks at Hamilton Zoo, NZ are conditioned for a recall to get them to come back into the zoo.

Outdated Procedures/Drills

Many zoos have protocols that state each year X amount of safety drills have to be practiced. Many of these procedures are based on punishment methods to be able to get the animals indoors and away from the situation. Vehicles used to chase them in, fire extinguishers, flares, flash grenades or even rubber bullets can all be used to reach this goal. From a welfare point of view, using this method could be seen as compromising the animals welfare. Safety is paramount and these procedures/drills are an important part of planning and potentially saving someone’s life in an actual emergency. But there are better ways to create strong, reliable plans around public, keeper and animal safety.

Many, if not all zoos, have a gun team in case there is a breach of containment. This is important for collections that house category 1 animals or any other institutions that have dangerous animals where either a zookeeper or a visitors life could be in danger. In those instances a human life is seen as more important than an animals. How can we give the animals a better chance to succeed and remove themselves from a potentially life threatening situation?

Change In Reinforcement Strategies

We start by looking into behaviour modification. Our goal is to tell the animals ‘whatever is happening in your exhibit, come to this position’ which is usually the indoor enclosure. This sounds fairly straightforward but it is not, we are asking the animal to make a choice between going to this new exciting situation in their exhibit or making the decision to come inside away from the situation. Unfortunately, we can never really know what the animal is thinking but we can make them more curious about one situation over the other. Our goal is to condition the animals to be more interested in coming inside than going to what is in their exhibit.

This is where reinforcement doesn’t just become reinforcement. As trainers we often choose a favourite or high value reinforcer for our animals and then tend to use it extensively as the primary reinforcer. Often the animals response begins to decrease, we might ask ourselves but it’s their favourite, most likely over use has resulted in a satiated reinforcer.

I LOVE SUSHI! But if you give me sushi for every meal for weeks on end, at some point, down the line, I will crave anything other than sushi and the power of this reinforcer for me, is gone. We have just satiated the reinforcer, and the animal might be thinking ’an interesting thing just happened in my exhibit, shall I go there or shall I come inside for that piece of food I always get?’ Simple answer; the animal will stay outside. This is where predictability and routine will negatively impact your training. We always mention to trainers conditioning an emergency recall, it should be a surprise if they get their favourite. 

Variation In the Reinforcer

When training this behaviour we have to be black and white in our variation, which means that we have to plan the reinforcers all the time. This way we ensure variability. Every day it is planned and we can keep track of what was done before and what reinforcer was used. The animals will have no idea what they will be getting but they know it will be good. Once you have reached this step you can start challenging situations.

First the tigers are asked to come in control as a small distraction and then recalled away.

Changing the type of reinforcement is not the only trick, we also have to be able to call the animals away from a variety of situations. Some are planned and some are not. When we plan the challenge, we can slowly make this more interesting to the animals, this way we increase the difficulty incrementally. Remembering that our goal is – whatever you are doing come inside. By changing the reinforcer all the time, it is more likely that the animal will be more motivated to know what they will get inside than stay and see what is in their exhibit. 

A keeper throws a device barrel in the exhibit, elephants respond, recalled back.

Extending the challenges teaches the animal that in any situation the animals have to come. We will work towards the last step which is if a person falls into an exhibit. We can’t completely trail this step but the use of a radio controlled car, smells and wetsuits filled with straw we can come very close to a real situation. 

Birds of Prey

With birds of prey we’ve tried changing the reinforcer whenever the recall signal is present. The keepers became very creative and decided the transport box is the perfect signal. This means that the transport box has to be conditioned first, afterwards it is used as a connection between high history of reinforcement. Whenever the birds fly off, which can happen at anytime, we can locate them using their transponder. We then show them the box and they fly in directly, this has happened and the birds came down immediately which was a great success.

Mixed Species Exhibit

This motivation strategy is used for other purposes such as discriminatory call overs. In a mixed species enclosure we can now recall one species off exhibit, instead of all of them at the same time.

Everything we do should be a welfare benefit to our animals and this should include their safety in hypothetical emergency situations. Through properly trained and planned emergency recalls we can give the animals we work with the tools they need to thrive in these potentially dangerous situations and keep our visiting public safe.

Any questions about Emergency Recalls? Need help setting it up at your facility? 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 or visit our website 

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!


PeterGiljam · June 3, 2020 at 08:10

Hi, Thank you.
What is important is to find other ways of reinforcement than the food. It can be that a toy might work, smells (with big cats this works well), boxes, Milk?. The idea is to create this variety in reinforcers. This can be conditioned reinforcers as well. It might be something to teach the cat different reinforcers before starting the recall. (might be an idea) Let us know how it goes 🙂

Arya · June 2, 2020 at 23:11

Hi, a very interesting read.
I was wondering what you do if a particular animal is not very interested in food rewards or only likes one in particular? I am currently working with a house cat that has some medical issues causing her to build some difficulties with food. I have one treat that is her absolute favorite but the rest is the only kind of meh. I already see the value of this one treat decreasing as we speak but I find working on recall very important. It is my next training project and found this article, so very interested to see how you would handle this 🙂

PeterGiljam · March 9, 2020 at 23:25

We are happy you enjoy the article!

martinez · March 9, 2020 at 23:23

many thanks for your article… it’s very interesting….

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