Posts Tagged With: training

 
 

Getting submerged in new training

Our hippos, Boipelo and Adhama, love to show off their skills during keeper chats!

Dallas Zoo Hippo Keepers Christina E. and Christine S. guest blog on ZooHoo!

We train almost every animal that calls the Zoo home. Training lets animals participate in their own care and enables staff to provide excellent animal husbandry. It can be something as simple as teaching the animal to shift from one space to another. Or as complex as training the animal to allow ultrasounds. Animals, like the hippos, can be asked to present certain body parts to keepers to facilitate routine checkups, or to open their mouths for teeth examinations and x-rays. To do this we use operant conditioning, focusing on positive reinforcement techniques. This means if the animal does the behavior we ask, they are rewarded. A reinforcement or reward can be anything the animal enjoys. Food is the most common reinforcer, but some animals prefer attention, tactile reinforcement, or their favorite enrichment item.

Keeper Christina E.
and Adhama during a recent training session.

At the Simmons Hippo Outpost, our hippos LOVE to show off trained behaviors that they have learned over the last year. During our keeper interactions, you may have seen Adhama and Boipelo opening their mouths to present their teeth, swimming across the pool, or targeting. Targeting is one of the first behaviors most animals learn because it is a good starting tool that leads to more complex behaviors. Adhama and Boipelo are asked to touch their noses to the end of the target. Their target stick is a long bamboo pole with a buoy on the end that’s lightweight and floats, making it ideal for our hippos. This behavior is typically easy to teach.  Most animals are curious by nature, so when the target is first presented they want to examine it and come closer. After they take that first step towards it, they’re rewarded. They continue to be rewarded the closer they get until finally touching the target. Once the animal learns that touching this target gets them a reward, it becomes one of their favorite behaviors.

Keeper Christine S. works with Boipelo on target training.

We recently started training some behaviors at our underwater viewing area, which brings Adhama and Boipelo so close that you just might think you’re in the water with them.  Boipelo is a pro at targeting underwater, while Adhama prefers to stay above the surface at the moment. Boipelo tends to be shyer in front of crowds and lets her boyfriend shine. Adhama definitely likes to monopolize the spotlight and will do some targeting, opening his mouth, and moving back and forth across the window.

 

In Greek, Hippopotamus means “river horse,” and they do look like graceful horses trotting in slow motion underwater. However, don’t let this fool you! Hippos are actually closest related to whales and dolphins. With this up-close view you can really examine them to see some of the similarities they have with their relatives.

The training at the underwater viewing area is still in the early stages, but the hippos and trainers are enjoying this new level of interaction. Come by Simmons Hippo Outpost to see Adhama and Boipelo in action!

Categories: Africa, Simmons Hippo Outpost, Zookeepers | Tags: , , | 1 Comment
 
 

Mischievous meerkats master their training

The five members of our meerkat mob!

Our five meerkats (males Orbee and Widget; and females Poppet, Huxley, and Twig) are working hard on their crate and station training, which will make it easier for our vets and keepers to perform routine health care and check-ups. These cute little predators are officially able to enter crates to receive their monthly vaccines, which keeper Amberlee B. tells us wasn’t always smooth sailing:

“It required two keepers and was usually chaotic, with the meerkats popping in and out of the crates constantly. It made it difficult to keep track of who had actually received their medication, and who had not.”

Meerkats are vocal animals and operate in a matriarchal group, also known as a “mob.” Poppet acts as our mob’s alpha female. She’s known to be very smart, and picks up on new things during training sessions quickly. Poppet, Orbee, and Widget are known to keepers as the “trouble makers.” Sometimes the trio will even climb on top of one of their tortoise neighbors.

As you might imagine, training these quirky ‘kats can be tricky. To get them used to entering crates, the meerkats were presented with a high-value reward (keepers discovered they loved ground meat, similar to what we feed our big cats) each time they entered the crates. Animal staff then worked get them to stay in the crates for longer periods of time, until finally they were able to comfortably and quietly remain in the crates long enough for keepers to apply their monthly flea/tick treatments.

A meerkat waits patiently for his reward during a recent station training session.

Keepers are also currently using a similar training approach to work on station training. For this behavior, each meerkat has their own colored spot marker to sit on. This has proven essential to the meerkat care team! By putting the markers on top of a small scale, they have successfully recorded weights on all five meerkats. “This was something we have only been able to do during the check-ups, which happen about twice a year,” Amberlee says. “By having more up-to-date weights, we can adjust their diet as needed to keep them at a healthy weight.”

Visit our meerkat mob on the Gorilla Trail in the Wilds of Africa, and stay a few minutes to observe their frisky antics!

Categories: Mammals | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Zoo vocabulary lesson: Stationing (or ‘how to ask an otter to sit still’)

Visitors to our Betty Moroney Norsworthy Otter Outpost have many ways to describe the personalities of our Asian small-clawed otters: quick, energetic, playful.

IMG_6285 Otter CSBut what’s a zookeeper to do when we need a hyper otter to sit still?

You teach them to “station.” Stationing is a behavior training that our otters and many other animals (big and small) learn. Specifically, it’s when an animal is asked to sit or stand still at a designated area.

As simple as it sounds, stationing has many benefits for the animal and the zookeeper.

For every successful station, the otter receives a delicious treat. All training done at the Dallas Zoo is through positive reinforcement, and our animals are never forced to do any behaviors. They’re asked nicely and rewarded.

Stationing is also the first step to learning other behaviors like target training, spin, scale and reach. All of these behaviors help zoo staff inspect the otters and administer medicine and vaccines safely and easily.

Visit our otter keeper talks Thursday through Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and you may see the stationing yourself!

(Video and photo by staffer Chelsea Stover)

Categories: Otter | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Training inquisitive meerkats

They’re incredibly cute, vicious at times, very smart, and extremely inquisitive. Meet our five meerkats: Huxley, Twig, Orbee, Widget and Poppet. These small predators recently learned a new behavior that’ll help vets and keepers easily perform health checks and administer annual vaccinations.

Because the speedy meerkats dig and travel in underground tunnels, it’s difficult for keepers to catch them. So for the past few months, keepers have trained the meerkats to station themselves inside a wire box. The lure? Smashed bananas on a spoon. Once the meerkats are inside the box, they can be transported to the veterinary staff at the hospital.

“Once the boxes are brought into the habitat and positioned in a row, they come right over because they know they’re getting a treat,” said mammal supervisor John Fried. “They’ve done really well. Something clicked in their heads, and now they enter no problem.”

They’re only inside for a short amount of time during training sessions. The next step is to latch the doors and see if they’ll eat the spoon full of bananas while closed inside. We’re confident this bonded clan will nail it!

Check out these photos from a recent training session.

The meerkats look on as keeper Sara Squires sets up the wire boxes.
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Categories: Africa, Mammals, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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