Many zoological facilities are continuously looking better the care of their animals. As animal caretakers we want to make sure that the species we look after thrive in their ca-give environments. This is not just about giving them large enclosures, it goes much further than this. Animal group make ups, enclosure design, enrichment programmes, diet and nutrition management, conservation programmes and of course a comprehensive training and behaviour programme. 

The training and behaviour programme is slowly becoming more important in the care of our animals in the zoological facilities. Within an animal behaviour programme there often sits the animal training coordinator, which I have been lucky enough to work as for many years. For those of you who would like to head in this direction in your career, there are some thoughts from my experiences that I think you need to know to be successful in this role which I’d like to share with you. 

1. You are not training animals 

I discovered fairly quickly that this job is not so much about training the animals. Of course, what we do has a huge effect on the animals, but we are more focused on the keepers taking care of the animals. We are almost like teachers, we teach the keepers how behaviour works and how we can have an effect on this in our daily work. 

Jerusalem Zoo, Israel

If we want to see a difference in the behaviour of our animals, we need to get the whole team on the same page with the goals we want to achieve. If the team doesn’t understand what we want to do, the animals won’t understand either. The animals behaviour is a direct reflection of how well the team works together. Which means that you need to understand how to make a team more efficient and how to motivate and inspire them to change the behaviour of the animals. Which can be quite the task! 

2. You are the example

This is an interesting one, because most likely the team sees you as the example. They have high expectations of your training skills and expect you to solve all the behaviour issues. Let’s be real, we are humans as well and we make mistakes. I’ve found that you need to know the theory of behaviour but more importantly, show in a simple way, how this works. Working in many different countries and in different languages and cultures has been quite the challenge, but one thing I found is that we all want the same thing. We want the best care for our animals. 

What has helped me immensely is understanding that the science of behaviour is applicable no matter the species. Sounds like common sense, but it is not that common. For example, elephant keepers will only look up and listen to people with elephant experience, same for marine mammals, birds of prey and so on. If we read up about behaviour it doesn’t really matter which animal we train, the science is exactly the same. 

One of the most important traits to have in this role, is the ability to admit to others that you were wrong or you made a mistake. The goal with behaviour, is that we find a solution together and because we work with animals, everybody can be wrong and so can you, which is completely okay. When the keepers see this, training will become easier, they won’t be feeling bad or nervous to make a mistake themselves, especially if the training culture is “life is good, what have we learnt from it and how did we solve it?”.

It is not about the animal preforming the behaviour, it is about the animals understanding the behaviour it preforms

Peter Giljam

3. You solve the behaviour problems

Zoo Hof, Germany

Keepers will come to you help solve problems such as “I don’t have time” or too many animals, not enough trainers. Interestingly, with the last point, hiring more people won’t work if the culture is not about finding solutions. It is up to the training coordinator to be creative enough to find a way to solve the problem with the least amount of trainers. This is difficult at times but patience is the key. 

How do you train so many animals all by yourself? How do we get all these animals to come reliably? How can we get that aggressive behaving animal to be more calm? What do we do with that pacing animal? My bird’s flown away from me, what do I do? These are examples of questions that will be thrown at you. The keepers expect you to solve these challenges, which at times, can be overwhelming. 

My take on this is, let’s look at the environment and see what we can do. I will ask the keepers if I can come and watch their “feeding”. How does their routine work and from there I will look at potential solutions, together with an approximation plan. 

4. Motivate people while criticising them

As mentioned in the first point in this list, we work mainly with people. We help them grow. This means that you need to be a person that can motivate people to want to grow and change and to make training animals fun. But we all know that you will be criticised training the animals. We will look in detail at the training the keepers are doing and give them tips and tricks to become better. Sounds easy, but it’s not, because telling somebody how to do something better is not necessarily motivating to a person. We have to get the keepers to want to do better next time. 

This means that we need to find ways to motivate and inspire them while constructively criticising them. We need to use reinforcement strategies with people as well, but remember, people are a lot more complicated as we think they are. If it doesn’t work, what you do as a training coordinator is to start looking at how you bring your information to the keepers. Do you have a proper trust account with them? Do you have credit? Do they feel safe and comfortable with you? If not, work on it.

Hamilton Zoo, New Zealand

5. Be objective

Animal training is based on objective observation of behaviour. We want to take away the emotions and feelings to focus on behaviour which doesn’t mean emotions and feelings are not there. We want to take all the labels away because behaviour is all we can explain and respond to. This means that we have to try and teach the keepers the same. You will discover that the keepers use a lot of anthropomorphism. We want to teach that all we can respond to is behaviour. We can’t reinforce a feeling or an emotion. 

From my experience being a training coordinator is not just about training animals. You are training people. You look into how the zoo wants to see the future regarding the behaviour of their animals. How does the zoo want their programme to be shaped, because you as the coordinator, have to find a way that fits with the vision of the zoo itself. 

We are creating time for the keepers by teaching them to be more efficient and how to do this together with the animals. We want to teach the keepers the understanding of behaviour modification. This is the same for the animals and therefore, I will always think “It is not about the animal preforming the behaviour but about the animal understanding the behaviour it preforms” 

As a training coordinator you are focused continuously on the fact that everything we do with our animals should be a welfare benefit for them. 

Good luck on your journey! 

Do you want to learn more about this specific topic?

This webinar was LIVE on the 11th of February 2022. You can now watch the recording.

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!


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.