We have worked with many species. Many lived in the water but we have never created a program for sharks and rays till we started our consulting project at Sea World Australia. Our first question was are the principles we use with other animals applicable to these animals?
The answer was easy. Yes of course it is. Our first steps were looking into the facility itself. There are quite some species within this habitat. A mixed species exhibit is challenging because of the amount of individuals which are present. Many eat similar chunks of reinforcement. This on it’s own creates a great challenge trying to train the goal species.
The sharks we focused on were the leopard sharks. They already had an established program they just needed to work on some specific details. They have 3 of them. One individual was better than the other. But the interesting thing I learned was that these animals have to swim while they eat. This means whenever you give a reinforcer they go swim in a little circle and then come back. Some sharks can’t stay still which is a challenge on its own. Knowing this we first started to solve their problem of animals coming. It would take up to 5 minutes after the signal was given for the animals to arrive. One of them often didn’t show up so we decided to find a way to make them come quicker. The trainers said they might have a better response when they add some blood in the water. That’s what we tried. We added some blood which seem to made them “awake”. We started to have a quicker response to the recall signal.
When this started to work we started to extend the control position of the sharks. They would come to a specific target and lie there for an x amount of time to then reinforce them. Let them swim in a small circle and reset the training. This was our base. Because from here we want to teach them a stretcher to scale them and even turn them upside down. While these animals already had established some great behaviours we only had to work the details to a point that they are making greater progression with all individuals. There was one called Romeo who was engaging very well in the sessions but as with all species there are also the ones a bit more difficult to motivate. But recently we have the 3th animal showing up as well. They have individual call overs and a group recall. Julliete who is the 3th shark started to show up more and more often which has been a great step forward.
The eagle rays:
The sharks already had some great behaviour established the question now is how do we even start with animals that have never been trained before in a mixed species exhibit. Especially when there are a lot of individuals eating the same things. On top of that all species are fed the same way which means that these animals have learned what the feeding situation means.
The first approximations we had to do is find out how we are able to discriminate the feeding session and the training. We know there is a boat used for the feeding. We decided to use this boat because this is what the eagle rays knew (plus all the other individuals). We first worked on selectively reinforce the eagle rays with tweezers. When we were able to reinforce all seven once we could move to the next approximation. On the north side of the habitat there was a shallower area with a beaching platform. This would be the best position for the eagle rays to be trained. The trainer could stand in the water and receive the animals easier.
Our next approximation was to add something to the boat which would discriminate the feeding session and the training sessions. We added some buoys behind the boat. Then we step by step moved closer to the beach area. We didn’t make them follow we just replaced ourselves each session as a step forward and stayed at that position in the habitat. Till we were next to the beach. Now we had the boat parked against the wall and a trainer on the beach. We would reinforce them at the boat and at the beach. The reason was that we wanted to fade out the boat slowly.
When they all where fed once at the beach we now added a second trainer at the beach. The boat still stayed. Now we added a rattle signal on the beach. The next approximation was to take the boat away again. After a period of 4 months went from completely nothing to the animals coming to the beach area. The problem we had now was that all 7 would come to the trainer and started to push each other. I suppose resource guarding so we had to think about another idea. The trainer came with a great idea to use a second trainer and receive one animal at a time. The rays had to enter on the right and swim to the left. A green glove was used as target spot and a double tap on the head was the bridge. This way we started to have m,ore control over the individuals. Which now helps us to extend the problem towards stretcher training and scaling them.
The best part of training this way is that we can now monitor each individual a lot better. We can give the individual with security nutritional add-ons if they need that and the individual welfare will be increased this way.
More goals are set for the individuals and we are working our way to better care of all individuals. A lot of progress by this team!! Are you interested in the training plan we used for the eagle rays?