Training Observations - Teaching Husbandry Behaviors to Zoo Animals
Alright, part one of my senior project is complete. I spent 5 weeks training the behavior of “offer paw” to four animals at the zoo. The animals I selected to work with were a pig-tailed macaque, raccoon, North American porcupine, and cougar.
Both the macaque and the raccoon offered the behavior very naturally. This came as no surprise to me since they are both a very tactile species that use their hands a lot. The hard part was getting them to hold the behavior for an extended period of time before moving their hand away. By session 7, the raccoon was holding the behavior for up to 20 seconds at a time. The macaque was a little more impatient and I was only able to get her to hold the behavior for 5 seconds at a time. With more sessions, I’m sure both animals could be shaped to hold the behavior for minutes at a time or longer.
For the cougar, I utilized the training tool of targeting. Using shaping and operant conditioning, I shaped him to touch a target with his paw. I then asked for him to hold the behavior for longer and longer. By the 8th session, I had conditioned him to lay down and hold his paw out towards the target for several minutes at a time. This behavior would be very useful if keepers ever need to examine his paw or nails.
The porcupine was a bit trickier because he was less food motivated. I started by handing him pieces of apple with my right hand while I lightly touched his foot with my left hand. He didn’t like it at first, but soon learned to ignore my left hand and focus on the apple in my right. Finally, one day, he reached out his paw and set it on my left hand as leverage so he could reach the apple in the my other hand. I jackpotted the behavior (extra big reward) and from then on he knew what to do. He quickly learned to place his hand on my hand in order to get the apple. That was the most surprising accomplishment for me, since I originally wasn’t sure if I would be able to get that behavior out of him at all!
So, time for some comparing. With 8 sessions each, I noticed that the raccoon was quickest to advance with this behavior. I think this is because he is both highly tactile and very willing to learn. He has a great temperament, high food motivation, and good relationship with me. All great things for training. The macaque learned quickly too, but became impatient when I started asking for longer behaviors. This might be because she is highly intelligent and simply got bored of the game lol. The cougar took a little longer to figure it out, but once he did, he carried out the behavior the best out of anyone. He is calmer than the other two and more content to hold a single position without fidgeting. The porcupine was slowest to learn, but even he figured it out in time.
Alright, time to begin phase two: teaching them to lean against the fence. This behavior is useful for staff if they ever want to give an injection to an animal without restraining or anesthetizing it. I’m excited to see how the different animals respond to this new behavior!!
What better way to transport a large collection of coconuts then floating them down the river. In some parts of the world (Thailand and Malaysia), trained pig-tailed macaques are used to harvest coconuts