The Language of Training

Some animals I work with aren’t exactly stellar students.  If trainers could choose their pupils, they would be animals that have the ability and excel at problem solving.  Those that don’t fear change and will ask questions.  The animals with the ability to do that in their daily life are usually the hunters of the world.  Those that have to be able to look at a situation and decide what is the best tactic to and timing to “win.”  Most animals that are predators use problem solving skills everyday.  It’s the ability and desire to figure out the best scenario to get the food that makes predators much easier animals to train, generally speaking.

Giraffe exhibiting "flight" behavior.

What makes prey animals more difficult to train?  I would put the prey animals in flight and family categories. Flight animals tend to be scared of anything new.  When a change happens in their environment instead of investigating it or wanting to know if it will harm them, they flee.  They flee fast and as far away from the scary object as they can.  Only once they feel they are safe will they stop running.  When you are training an animal such as this (giraffe) it becomes very difficult to introduce a new person or training tool.  There are times before you can use a new training tool, such as a target (a piece of dowling with a small ball or buoy on the end of it) you must leave it sitting in the corner for a week, then move it closer to their enclosure each week until they are comfortable enough to investigate it and their first response is no longer to flee.  If there is a change in their environment, you may have to start over with whatever you were training in the first place.

Family social structure is important to bonobos.

There are other prey animals that are a bit easier to work with. These animals tend to have diverse social structures and have to be able to learn from each other and work together to stay alive (horse/primate). These animals communicate and travel distances to reach food and have a hierarchy that is not to be challenged.  Because of their extreme social networks it is these animals that may decide to let you in.  That they may choose to work with you and if you are lucky they may even consider you a member of their family.  They are designed to work as a team and because of that they are willing to let people into their team, as their need for social structure is strong.  These animals tend to be easier to work with and more forgiving, however if you don’t know their language it can be a very difficult road for the average trainer.

Training every animal at the zoo is a difficult task, one that requires an extreme amount of patience with such a diverse collection.  Luckily we have some of the best keepers who are a part of each animal’s “family” and have the relationship with these animals, so I don’t have to know each animal’s language.  The keepers do a great job of bridging the gap and helping everyone understand their language.