Written by Nicki Boyd – Associate Curator of Behavioral Husbandry

In 2017, the San Diego Zoo embarked on a new safety protocol with emergency recall for our open fronted habitats that had dangerous animals inside.  We knew the tragedy that befell another North American Zoo, when a child climbed a barrier and then fell into a gorilla habitat, could happen anywhere and we wanted to be prepared for that or any type of emergency.  I knew the Kolmarden Zoo had been doing some amazing recall behaviors with carnivores so I reached out to my colleague and peer Pieter Giljam the Behavior Manager to get some help setting up our program.  They had some great videos and he talked me through our list of questions. 

We had decided to do the emergency recall with our gorillas, polar bears, grizzly bears and tigers.  Each habitat had an open viewing area and so they were the priority areas to train.  We began with meeting with all levels.  The support came from the top, our CEO, and then spread through each level, curators, veterinarians, managers, supervisors, nutritionist, leads and keepers.  It is important that everyone understands, and is invested in the process, for support from equipment, training time, high value reinforcers, training knowledge and a well thought out training plan.  

All four habitats had a waterfall feature so we decided to place an electronic school bell with an emergency push button for the wildlife care specialist to initiate the recall tone. 

This did cost the zoo money for the initial investment in equipment and electrical conduit but the expense and ramification of a tragedy would have been a far greater price to pay.

After we established our training plans (and I have outlined the process below), we had many questions Pieter always had the answer I needed and it helped reassure all of us that we were on the right training path. As you read through the recommendations below I just have to ask everyone that manages large carnivores can you afford NOT to.  This has been one of the most rewarding training programs I have been in, while it took effort to set it up it has been easy to maintain and already proven successful in many “tests”.  We all hope there will never be another tragedy but having a successful emergency recall is one more tool in your training toolbox to prevent potential loss of life, human or animal. 

Before You Begin – General Tips and Recommendations

Use Species Fact Sheets; know the species natural history, including understanding; 

  • Any seasonal changes in behavior (i.e., weather or breeding season) 
  • Food types preferred by the species 
  • The species-typical social structure including any individual variations from typical behavioral expectations
  • Working with your veterinarian or nutrition staff, seek to discover high value food items you can ideally save for the emergency recall

Beginning training  

  • Set your antecedent arrangement up for success 
  • Initially pair the emergency recall with normal recall 
  • Phase out normal recall quickly and observe within the second or third session if they are responding to the different emergency recall cue
  • Make sure the emergency recall cue can be heard throughout the habitat and that it is a unique sound they do not hear anywhere else.  (Exhibit noise levels – consideration should be given for water features like streams or water falls, and crowd noise)
  • Discuss the criteria for allowable response time and consequences (loss of opportunity)
  • Establish and discuss unacceptable response times or lack of response in your training plan
  • If possible, video each session as the time stamp will help you track improvements in the animal’s response times
  • Vary the times of day the emergency recall training is offered
  • Always be aware of seasonal changes that may impact the animal’s behavior, i.e. bears may be slower in the winter, or seasonally changing hormone levels may also play significant role in your training plan, so adjust accordingly


  • With your understanding of the species social hierarchy within the exhibit habitat, plan accordingly for animal separations once inside the bedrooms
  • Remember the emergency recall is a cue and should be short (of limited duration) and not a continuous sound.
  • This behavior has no completion date and must be perpetually practiced to ensure the animal’s immediate compliance. Set a schedule and stay on top of it.
  • You will discover that within your staff, there are sure to be many opinions.  Always listen to your staff and always consult with others in the industry (as I did with Pieter) that have developed emergency recall programs.  Once you have a plan, trust it.
  • Once the emergency recall response has been well established, there are several ways to test the strength of your emergency recall.  With veterinary/curatorial consultation, drop something into the habitat, make certain the animals are aware of the presence of something unusual in their space, and sound the emergency recall.  Alternatively, sound the emergency recall after just the animals have been released from their bedrooms in the morning.  Like a fuel gage in your car, the animal’s response time will indicate if the behavioral response is appropriate or still needs shortening.
  • Do not be fooled into thinking your daily recall of the animals to their bedrooms is sufficiently strong enough to be helpful during an actual emergency.   Emergency recall is a different behavior with different rewards.  The emergency recall behavior must have greater (type, not quantity) rewards for the animal’s immediate compliance.  Do not over or under utilize the emergency recall.   In the beginning plan to offer the emergency recall opportunity every 1-2 weeks.  Post conditioning; maintain the behavior by providing the opportunity once every 1-2 months.  The animal’s immediate response to the emergency recall and exiting the habitat is the behavior you are reinforcing.
  • Do not be concerned about having the exact right high value foods available during an actual emergency.  At this point, you are relying on the history of the reinforcements the animals have earned for the behavior.  In fact, in an actual emergency, you may not even have time to reinforce the animals for exiting their habitat.  Behavior is plastic and missing a single reward for a correct response will not pose a problem for the animals.  The idea is that the behavior is so well conditioned that missing a high value reinforcement one time will not ruin the emergency recall behavior or your previous training. 

Want to know more about Emergency Recalls? Contact us Info@zoospensefull.com


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!


Bren · January 5, 2022 at 23:53

Wow. As a positive trainer, I can appreciate the time and effort put in to teaching these emergency recall behaviours. Given the huge resource significance of the lamb carcass to the tiger, I found it amazing that he would come off that, his emergency recall was so strong. We need to be able to get our dogs to respond in this way. I always use the examples of training and methods that zoos use for their predators to try to show the public that using prong, choke or shock collars is totally unnecessary on a mere dog, when you can train an apex predator without it. Thank you for these videos!

PeterGiljam · July 11, 2021 at 21:34

Dear Carolyn,

Sends us an email if you have more questions. Info@zoospensefull.com

Carolyn Carr · June 22, 2021 at 04:04

When have special parrots living/nesting in a tree at the CORNER on WALNUT and FIRST AVE NEW ON the south side corner at WALNUT and First Ave. These bird are rare!! Zoo folks help us to get theses birds a Home.

The sound is LOUD coming from that tree.

619 753 0260…. call me

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