Carmen the Cockatoo 

Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Meet Carmen! This happy girl is a Moluccan, or Salmon-crested, Cockatoo. Native to Indonesia and Australia, they can live into their 70s, so Carmen is still young at 21 years of age.

Cockatoos have incredibly loud voices, and Carmen definitely uses hers! She enjoys chatting to her keepers, though her ‘talking’ is not quite what you would think; although cockatoos can say words, they are only mimicked sounds rather than words with meaning for them. Carmen enjoys announcing that she is a ‘pretty girl’ to anyone that will listen!

 

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Carmen with keeper Tim – photo courtesy of Tim Dirksen

They live on a diet of fruit, nuts and seeds – cashews are Carmen’s favorite treat! They have terrifically strong beaks designed to crack open nuts or get through tough foods. They use these picks to pick things up and play as well – Carmen LOVES using hers to shred cardboard. “That’s her favorite activity,” says keeper Tim Dirksen. As her primary trainer, Tim spends time with Carmen for her training and enrichment – socialising her and making sure she’s healthy and happy. She can be very picky about who she works with – not every keeper makes into her good graces. Tim, however, is a firm favourite!

Play time for Carmen! - photo courtesy of Tim Dirksen

Play time for Carmen! – photo courtesy of Tim Dirksen

Since cockatoos are very intelligent, they need a lot of attention or they become easily bored. Carmen gets lots of love, toys, and fun things in her day to keep her occupied. “She particularly loves it when people speak or sing in Spanish to her,” Tim tells us.

Carmen lives in the aviary section of the Wildlife Safari Village – come and meet her in person!

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Huckleberry 

Ambassador Days, Behind the Scenes, Uncategorized

Meet Huckleberry, Wildlife Safari’s ambassador chicken. Although chickens are far from endangered, they are a common farm or even household pet and Huckleberry helps teach people about their behavior, care, and their place in ecological systems.

Huckleberry the chicken getting some snuggle time with a keeper

Chickens eat fruits, vegetables and a variety of insects that they find in the soil using their typical behavior of “scratching” where they dig up the ground with their feet.

Most people think birds are pretty silly, but many species are actually quite intelligent, and can be trained very effectively. Huckleberry can understand and react to several commands, including target (she pecks the end of her target stick) and station (she goes to stand on her little platform).

Interrupting a conference between Huckleberry and Bell, the Blue and Gold Macaw.

Since she is so well behaved and can be easily recalled, Huckleberry gets to wander around outside or inside for most of the day. When she needs to be brought in, her keepers simply call her name (which she will come to) and ask her to go inside (she runs along into the Education building), or even ask her to go home – with that command she will run all the way inside and into her house awaiting her treat and for her keepers to shut her door.

When inside she likes to nap near her keepers while they do office work, or undertake the never-ending job of preening her feathers to ensure she stays clean and beautiful!

Training for Healthy Bodies and Minds

Behind the Scenes, Carnivores, Cheetahs, Uncategorized

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.

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A keeper training one of our female lions

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.”

One of our Ambassador cheetahs gives his paw to a keeper

One of our Ambassador cheetahs gives his paw to a keeper

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.

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Keeper Melissa Fox during a Brown Bear training session. Photo courtesy of Melissa Fox.

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.

Pancake knows to go sit on her board when keepers ask her to "station"

Pancake knows to go sit on her board when keepers ask her to “station”

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!

 

Healthy Happy Hippos

Behind the Scenes, Uncategorized, Ungulates

Meet Wildlife Safari’s resident hippos! Blippo and Padron, like many of the animals at the park, have regular training sessions with their keepers. As they are such large animals, these sessions are vitally important for their care – being able to ask them to show their teeth allows keepers to make sure they’re healthy everyday, and catch any issues before they become a real problem.


Without using behavioral training for health checks, keepers and veterinarians would need to sedate these large animals to do any kind of check up. This can be stressful for the animal. 

While being able to move the hippos is helpful, it is the open mouthed dental checks that are particularly important. The keepers have captured a behavior to allow for voluntary tooth trims. A drummer has also been slowly introduced to trim their teeth down for a natural wear. Blippo seems to take delight in the vibrations of the drummel, its almost like a tooth massage! Padron is a bit more shy, but is becoming braver every day.

Hippos have large incisors that dig up the grasses and vegetation they eat, with the help of incredibly powerful jaws. Since hippos are quite tough on their teeth, regular dental checks can catch cracks or damage before they become too serious.

The Big Times – Working with Elephants

Elephants, Keeper Chats, Uncategorized

Wildlife Safari is home to many creatures, from the tiny to the huge! The Elephant department looks after the biggest of the bunch. With five elephants, this herd keeps their care takers pretty busy! George (35 yrs), Tava (38), Valerie (34) and Moja (34) are African elephants, with their characteristic large ears and overall body size. Liz (52) is the only Asian elephant in the troop, but this doesn’t stop her from being in charge. As the matriarch of the group she demands respect. “She’s a tough cookie,” says Elephant Supervisor Dinah Wilson about Liz. “She has strength, attitude, confidence –  comfortable in any setting.”

All the elephants have their own distinct personalities, and their keepers love getting to know them and spending time with them. George wins everyone’s hearts with his charm and sweet disposition; Tava loves her training sessions – she strives for perfection and loves to learn; Moja is very inquisitive (with the largest ears anyone has ever seen); and Valerie is super playful – toys or no she’ll find a way to have fun, even if it’s throwing dust!

Tracy with Tava

Keeper Tracy with Tava, an African elephant

 

With five large animals there is a lot of cleaning to be done, which takes up most of the keepers’ day. Then comes the husbandry work, the time where keepers make sure everyone is happy and healthy. Bathing, brushing, foot checks and overall health checks are important parts of making sure the elephants are at their best. “Then there is the training and interaction,” says Tracy Moser, Elephant Keeper. “Where we work with the elephants, giving them the chance to do exercises or physical therapy, do things that are stimulating and enriching for their brains as well as bodies – and of course letting guests meet the elephants!”

Keeper Tracy with Moja, an African Elephant

Keeper Tracy with Moja, an African Elephant

Working with such large and intelligent animals is incredible, but comes with a unique set of challenges.”You have to be a couple steps ahead, because they’ll be a couple steps ahead of you,” says keeper Courtney. “Everything here is big – large yards, gates, everything. Enrichment items are also very big, so you have to be pretty strong.”

Their intelligence makes training sessions particularly interesting. “You’re not just training an animal to robotically perform a behaviour – they will work in tandem with you to make it the way you want it. It’s really neat – different from any other animal,” says Courtney.

Smiles

 

“Seeing how intelligent they are, that’s the most impressive thing about them. They have such distinct personalities and the way you can bond with them,” says Wilson, who has worked with elephants for 40 years. “It’s complex, there are a lot of different aspects to providing proper care, and safety too.” Safety considerations are vital when working with such huge, smart creatures. With trunks that stretch so far, and the strength to pick up large objects, keepers need to be aware at all times, and considerable thought needs to go into what toys they can play with.

Although there are an abundance of wonderful things about being close to such amazing animals, Wilson says that what she loves most about her work is seeing the bond that keepers form with the animals. Watching her staff develop their training relationships with the elephants is the most rewarding part of her job as supervisor. “It’s so much fun to see those relationships develop,” she says.

Full of rewarding hard work and fun with the elephants, staff love each day there, and love introducing people to these amazing animals. “No day is boring here,” says Wilson – so come and see it for yourself!

 

 

 

Eager Little Faces

Behind the Scenes

Many of the animals at Wildlife Safari get trained every single day, and are usually waiting excitedly for whatever treats their training session will bring. Those that don’t often still get a midday snack – and they sure know when it’s snack time!

So when keepers come past, we often see some eager little faces peering at us hoping for some treats. Here are some of the faces we see everyday!

 

One of our 6 lion cubs waiting not so patiently for training to begin

One of our 6 lion cubs waiting not so patiently for training to begin

Tiger eyes

One of the Sumatran tiger girls checking if her keeper has treats.

Goat nose

Ginger the goat sniffs around hoping for some yummy petting zoo pellets!

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Bandit the American Badger is hard to say no to with that face!

Painting with Paws

Behind the Scenes, Cheetahs, Uncategorized

All of the animals at the park have unique personalities, but some of them are artists as well! They may not be able to hold a brush, but they still find a way to make some pretty amazing paintings.

A painting done by Pancake and Dayo, our cheetah and dog ambassador pair - photo courtesy of Sadie Ryan

A painting done by Pancake and Dayo, our cheetah and dog ambassador pair – photo courtesy of Sadie Ryan

Our tigers and cheetahs paint by walking through a mat covered with paint and then onto a canvas.

Pancake doing a painting session - photo courtesy of Sadie Ryan

Pancake doing a painting session – photo courtesy of Sadie Ryan

Dayo, the dog paired with Pancake as an ambassador, doing a painting session - photo courtesy of Sadie Ryan

Dayo, the dog paired with Pancake as an ambassador, doing a painting session – photo courtesy of Sadie Ryan

Other animals take a more passive approach. The hippos only have to hold still while the keepers do all the work!

Padron the hippo making a 'hippo kiss' painting - photo courtesy of Allison Trout

Padron the hippo making a ‘hippo kiss’ painting – photo courtesy of Allison Trout

Although motivated by the keepers (also known as providers of snacks) and not by a need for artistic expression, the resulting paintings are amazing prints and splatters that are unique every time. If you are lucky you may even get a tail brush swipes!

An array of paintings done by Pancake and Dayo - photo courtesy of Sadie Ryan

An array of paintings done by Pancake and Dayo – photo courtesy of Sadie Ryan