As animal caregivers we want the best for our animals, but sometimes there are situations where we have to put an animal in an environment or situation that they may perceive as negative or stressful. In these situations animal care trumps animal training.

Retroactive Management

Zookeeping is all about observation. Through our observations we are able to clearly identify what ‘normal’ behaviour looks like for our animals. Whenever we find that an animal has sustained an injury or is behaving in a manner that suggests there is something not quite right we generally have two choices. If they are trained with a variety of medical behaviours that will allow us to get the potential cause of the problem. If they are not trained we have to use different, less positive techniques in order to ascertain the problem. Usually this involves catching them, using a blow dart, herding in order to separate them away from the group.

In many cases we are responding retroactively meaning we act when the problem already exists. When we think about behaviour and its consequences, the situations we act retroactively are not strengthening our relationships with the animals. We must understand that behaviour is happening all the time, whether we like it or not. This means that when we chase or herd animals we are punishing the animals and using punishment decreases the animals welfare. We bring a huge amount of negative stress to these animals by using punishing techniques.

You might be thinking for the individual that is injured, its future will be better, this may be true if we talk about the medical side, not when we talk about behaviour. From a behavioural standpoint we actually make the situation worse in the future. Our trust account decreases drastically and the behaviour we had to use punishment for will take a lot more time to train in the future using positive strategies.

The Behavioural Outcome

To be able to manage these difficult situations from a behavioural side we have to look into associative learning or classical conditioning. Animals connect situations which we use in our training sessions to reach our behavioural goals. The unfortunate thing about associative learning is that Mr. Pavlov is always looking over your shoulder.

If we trick an animal to go into a transport box, the animal doesn’t want to go into the box next time. If we call our animal to come towards us and the consequence is to be darted, the animal won’t come next time we call. This shows us that the animal does not have trust in the trainer to allow them to close the door of the box or to come to the trainer because of the last consequence to the asked behaviour had a negative outcome for that animal. To overcome these negative associations takes a lot of approximations in the future which takes a lot, if not the double amount of time.

Insecure Bison

European bison are big animals that are dangerous enough to warrant working with them in protective contact. At Kolmarden zoo the keepers observed that the big male had a foot problem. The vet came and prescribed some medication. In this example the male was trained to come on cue which allowed us to easily medicate him.

The whole group was conditioned to shift from one exhibit to the other. One day the keepers discovered that the male wasn’t able to stand. In order to get close to the bison we had to use a tractor. They brought the tractor in to the exhibit as far away as possible. Then asked the bisons to come closer and shift to the nearest exhibit, as this would give us a higher chance to succeed. With the tractor behind the bison and the veterinarian car in sight, the bison didn’t want to move.

The keepers tried to call them so they would shift. A vocal cue was given followed with the sound of a bucket of food, they tried multiple times without any success. After the keepers had failed to shift the bison the vet decided to use the tractor to herd the bison to the other exhibit, which was a negative experience for the bison.

Bisons being called to practise shifting as a group.

The bison eventually moved, leaving only the big male in the exhibit. From a behavioural standpoint, the group was never trained to shift with vehicles around. The addition of the veterinarian in to the environment resulted in the shifting behaviour to break down. This was due to the changes in the environment, the tractor in the exhibit and the vet car insight it was likely to fail. The future of the shifting behaviour was now uncertain. The animals didn’t trust the keepers and or any future scenarios of having a tractor in the exhibit. This meant that the keepers had to start from scratch, most likely with a lot more effort to get the behaviour back on criteria.

How could this negative experience have been avoided from the start? Best case scenario would have been not having the veterinarian or his car visible and cue the animals to come like it was any other normal day. If they wouldn’t come we would retry one more time. If this wouldn’t work after 15 minutes + we could herd them slowly to the other exhibit. Preferably with keepers and vehicles the animals do not know yet. The reason being if you are at a procedure and are involved in having to chase or dart animals, the animals will be connecting you to the negative situation and this might directly effect your relationship. Animals associate situations all the time.

Behaviour Is Part of A Well Planned Emergency Scenario

Well planned emergency scenarios think about the future of the behaviour as much as the medical procedure being performed. It is not always possible that the trainers can’t be present. The trainers that have the strongest relationships with the animals should be the ones involved because these trainers can afford to lose some trust. These cases are rare but not impossible. 

Other medical procedures such as vaccinations are another area for consideration. Whenever we train for this behaviour we want to have the animal accept this through operant conditioning. We want a cue, behaviour and a consequence. If we look at a cat that needs an annual vaccine the procedure might be ‘Lie down’ as a cue, lie down and injection as behaviour, meat as a consequence. If the vaccination is overdue and needs to happen sooner rather than later and depending on the level of the cat; a choice to continuously feed the animal or use ‘distraction training’ could be one solution. It works by vaccinating while the animal is eating. This technique doesn’t mean you’ll be able to repeat this procedure in the future but it does build reinforcement history.

Outcome of great training at the Hamilton Zoo with their fishing cats. Vaccination done!

We have to look at these medical emergency situations as response to behaviour and then plan them accordingly. We have to look at these situations as what will happen with the behaviour the animal shows us in the future and how can we still plan the procedures with the best outcome for the future. Not only for ourselves but also the associations the animals make with us. Rethinking our planned actions through behaviour management will have an effect on the behaviour in the future. 

Want to learn more about this topic? Sign yourself up for the upcoming webinar Cooperative Care and Medical Emergency Situations on the 29th of October from 8PM CET. Check out our website for more information and other webinars about common training subjects. Have a go at upskilling your basics, take a look here. If you have any questions about the topics in this article or about training in general, send an email to 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!


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