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Training animals to take part in their own care

Posted by: Susan Fisher, Animal Management

Woodland Park Zoo is deeply committed to providing excellent day-to-day care for our animals. In our efforts to continually raise the bar in animal welfare, WPZ has developed a robust and ever-evolving behavioral husbandry program. Recently, we were fortunate to bring nationally-recognized behavioral husbandry expert Marty MacPhee to Seattle to lead workshops and one-on-one sessions with our animal care and education staff.

Marty has helped develop programs for Brookfield Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. She also helped design and taught the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) courses “Animal Training Applications in Zoos and Aquariums” and “Managing Animal Enrichment and Training Programs.” Many of our zookeepers and animal managers have already had the opportunity to complete these courses with more to enroll in the years to come.

Marty MacPhee meets Marty the porcupine. Photo by Deanna Ramirez/Woodland Park Zoo.

In fact, some of our keepers were so inspired by their experience in the AZA course, that they named our North American porcupine (born in April 2014) “Marty.” In the midst of her busy visit to WPZ, Marty the person found time to meet her namesake, Marty the porcupine.

Who can forget how adorable Marty was when she was a newborn! Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Porcupine Marty currently lives off-exhibit at the Raptor Center. There she works one-on-one with her keepers who are training her for future appearances in raptor and education programs. Her training is coming along well—she is learning to go to her station and into her crate, as well as how to climb a ramp on command. It’s a little challenging for keepers to find a good time for training sessions with Marty, as she is nocturnal by nature, but the progress so far is promising!

The Raptor Flight program is a great example of how the animals are encouraged to use their natural behaviors while working with zookeepers. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Behavioral husbandry is the science (and sometimes the art!) of promoting animal well-being by observing behaviors and subsequently improving care (husbandry) based on behavioral needs. Zookeepers observe the animals’ behavior and then provide enhancements to their environments with the goal of promoting natural behaviors. Two integral components of behavioral husbandry are environmental enrichment and training (or operant conditioning).

Environmental enrichment at work: orangutans are natural climbers and move among tree tops, vines, and hammocks in the canopy of their exhibit. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

The incorporation of environmental enrichment into the daily care of animals is a hallmark of AZA accredited zoos. AZA defines enrichment as a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioral choices and drawing out natural behaviors, thus enhancing their overall welfare. Enrichment comes in many forms: objects and toys, sensory stimulation to appeal to the animals’ sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste, or maintaining species-appropriate social groupings that resemble those in the wild. This encourages natural feeding, play, grooming and courtship behaviors.

Through excellent training, silverback Leonel has learned to present his hands to keepers as part of treatment for dermatitis. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Training provides mental and physical stimulation and also allows animals to freely participate in their own care. For example, WPZ’s male gorilla Leonel has been trained to voluntarily present his hands so keepers can provide daily treatment for persistent dermatitis. This training program has resulted in dramatic improvement of his condition achieved with minimal stress to Leonel. Every day, WPZ’s animals are conditioned to offer trained behaviors that allow us to give them the best possible quality of life—from something as simple as stepping onto a scale to be weighed, to allowing medical procedures like blood draws and ultrasound exams, to complex routines such as raptor free-flight programs.