People tend to think that training involves ridding an animal of its natural instincts in order to tame it. In fact, our training is just the opposite. Animal training at Wildlife Safari is not used for the sole purpose of public entertainment. Our training actually reinforces natural behaviors and is used to evaluate and maintain the health of our animals.
Daily observations of our animals allow us to assess their health status. It is generally easy to tell if an animal is not feeling 100%, but it is not as easy to identify the source of the problem. Some parts of the animal’s body are difficult to see with just passive observation. For example, it is hard to see inside of a bear’s mouth, or to inspect a lion’s paw pads. This is where training becomes extremely valuable.
Keepers can check for injuries on the bellies of lions during training sessions.
We can ask for a variety of behaviors that allow us to see parts of the animal’s body that are usually difficult to evaluate, such as the animal’s mouth, paw pads, and belly. For example, the lions and tigers are trained to put their paws up on the fence, allowing keepers to inspect the paw pads for any sign of injury or infection. Our ambassador cheetahs can also show us their paw pads, but the behavior is more similar to asking a dog to “shake.”
With the cheetahs we can both look at and feel their pads to check for scrapes or other damage. The specific behavior we ask for varies slightly depending on the animal species, but the purpose is the same.
The lions, tigers, bears, and cheetahs are also trained to show off their bellies. The lions and tigers will put both paws on the fence, either from a sitting or standing position. The bears will stand on their hind legs. The cheetahs will lay on their sides in the ‘flop’ position, a very natural pose for them. The bears and hippos are also trained to open their mouths (to read more about hippo training, check out Healthy Happy Hippos). We actually discovered that one of our brown bears needed a root canal because he was trained to show us his teeth.
Other behaviors that we ask for are useful for medical procedures such as drawing blood or putting an animal under anesthesia. Sometimes our animals do get sick and we need to run tests on them, but we want to minimize the stress that this puts on them. To do this, we work with them to simulate medical procedures. For example, we are currently working with our lions to approach the fence and allow keepers to gently poke their thigh. This imitates the feeling of a needle. If we ever had to put the lion under anesthesia, we could inject the anesthetics by hand. They would approach the fence as they usually would, get poked, and that time they would happen to fall asleep. This limits stress because the process is very familiar to them. We are also working on blood draw training with many of our big cats. For a test as simple as a blood draw, we want to limit stress and avoid putting the animal under anesthesia.
With our ambassador cheetahs we can simply shave a small patch at the base of their tail and draw blood from there. It takes a little bit of time for them to get used to us touching their tail. But, unlike our ambassador cheetahs, most of our carnivores were not hand-raised and the process is therefore more difficult.
We always work protected contact with our lions, tigers, and bears. This means that there is always a fence between us and them. Keepers cannot simply waltz into the tiger enclosure to draw blood. Because of this, we are training the tigers to approach the fence and allow us to gently pull their tails through the fence so that we can draw blood from their tails while they are still awake. For the bears, we actually draw blood from the arm, but the goal is the same. This training does not happen overnight. There is a process and each animal is in a different stage of the process.
Training these behaviors is just the first step. After the animal has learned the behavior, it is imperative that the behavior is maintained. We reinforce behaviors with an audible click and a food reward. The animals are trained to hold a behavior until they hear a click. Then they get a bite-size snack as a reward for doing the behavior correctly. The clicker is an important tool in training because it allows keepers to stay consistent. If we were to reinforce behaviors with a verbal cue, such as saying “good”, the animals might get confused because each keeper has a different voice and tone. Clickers produce an identical sound, so all keepers are giving the exact same cues to prevent confusion.
Come check out our animal encounters to see training in action!