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What do you think of zookeepers training animals?

Discussion in 'General Zoo Discussion' started by HorseChild, 6 May 2016.

  1. HorseChild

    HorseChild Active Member

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    Question above. What do you think of when you think of zookeepers training animals? How do you feel about it?

    I want to see what the general perception from the "outside" is, and if the information that people have is accurate.
     
  2. FunkyGibbon

    FunkyGibbon Moderator Staff Member

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    I think in general I believe that zookeepers have animals' best interests at heart, and that they also have the most expertise and therefore it is their voice and opinion that should be heard the loudest. So when zookeepers say that training is necessary I believe that. And it should be obvious that it is necessary for many husbandry reasons.

    But I do wonder that certain animals, like sealions, are presented as benefiting from a great deal of non-husbandry related training, whereas other carnivores to which you might think the same logic applied are not. There are obvious historical reasons for this, but these displays have largely survived the modernisation that has taken place in, at least, British zoos in the last couple of decades.

    So even though I bow to the wisdom of the professionals, I question whether behavioural enrichment training is being applied logically across the zoo's collection, or if old habits and public perceptions of what should be done are actually the driving forces.
     
  3. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

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    Define "training"

    In my mind this depends greatly on the focus of the zoo and upon the individual animal involved; but can probably be broken into a few groups:

    1) Animals destined for rewildling/reintroduction projects. Clearly these animals should have as little potential human contact as possible. If anything they want to be afraid of their keepers (at least those slated for full release) since fear of man is more likely to result in them avoiding human habitation and thus reducing potential human-animal conflict.
    Of course some breeding pairs who are kept captive, but whose offspring are destined for the wild, might well have more familiarity with their keepers to aid management. However one must be careful that such interactions are kept to a minimum and are not passed down through generations.



    2) Animals destined to remain within the zoo/captive system. Animals destined to be kept within an enclosure for the duration of their lifespan are thus more suitable for increased keeper/animal contact and training. They won't be returning to the wild and thus management and enrichment can both be enhanced by keepers having increased capacity to work with the animals (even if physically separated). Example reasons might include:

    a) Training for the purpose of display. Like it or not zoos are part entertainment and thus part of their function has to be to generate revenue. On the other side of the coin they are also awareness and education promoters.
    All three of those factors can be made possible by displays which can also form part of the enrichment for the animals.

    b) Training for the purposes of management; keepers who are able to handle or work with or at least have some familiarity with their charges can mean that management of the animals is much easier and can be conducted with reduced levels of stress on the animals in question. It can also mean that certain elements can be performed without having to always reach for the dart-gun to put the animal into a torpid or slumbering state (which is not without its risks).

    c) Training for the purposes of enrichment; like it or not sometimes caged life is dull and toys or hidden food can sometimes only go so far in enriching the life of certain captive animals. Sometimes human interaction (even if physically separated) or even trained actions might well provide something for those animals that can help give them something to stop them pacing in boredom.

    d) Training for the purposes of public interaction. For this I mean beyond simple displays but actual public interaction with the animals themselves. This is something that I think is very important, but often undervalued by some. Humans are tactile creatures and we clearly develop increased association with things we physically interact with than those we are kept at a distance from.
    A person who sees a wild animal on the television will often have less connection than one who sees it in the flesh; and less still than one who has handled (even for a moment) such a creature. Such interactions I think are important and something that should be maintained where possible.


    To my mind training partly about teaching control but also reducing human fear. Reduction of fear factors can be important in animals which will be in the public eye; furthermore it can mean that management can be conducted with reduced levels of stress.


    Interesting examples:
    elephants - some animals are so large and powerful that typical zoo management would almost necessitate a form of training if those animals are to be moved without putting keepers and the animals at significant risk of harm.

    raptors - bird of prey displays are something most people consider totally normal and whilst some might have reservations about it its something that the public generally has no issues with. Indeed such displays happen outside of zoos often at fairgrounds (indeed one might even argue that a fair without a raptor display is missing something).

    tigers - tigers, lions, anything predatory that is powerful and quite capable of killing is something many people fear without realising. I think also people get a romantic notion that gives these predators a level of respect that prey animals don't seem to get. People appear to have more concern for predators trained to do tricks then prey trained likewise.
    Of course risk management wise such creatures are often considered more dangerous due to their hunting instinct; however one cannot forget that many prey animals are equally if not more dangerous (hippos - zebras etc..)



    In the end I don't see harm in training so long as its justified and the animals position within the conservation/captive community is well established. Indeed I think that interactions between people and animals can be a very positive thing.

    I know that it gets some bad press and that when people think of training they instantly think of the circus which then instantly brings to mind the abuses that occurred within that sector. The circus zoo animal is gone (far as I know its illegal or at least so heavily regulated in the UK that its basically gone) and society isn't calling for its return. It's image is forever tarnished and thus zoos have to avoid repeating that kind of interaction and experience. At least in the UK it seems. The USA appears to still have its circus style of entertainment (one thinks of the killer whales) although even there there is a lessening of the play and an attempt to focus on "wild behaviour" emulations.
     
  4. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

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    I suspect a great part of the problem here, at least for trainers, is that there is likely not that much material out there to discuss this aspect. Growing certainly and in some fields I suspect there is a fair bit; but my impresison is that a lot that happens at each zoo is often quite contained within the zoo itself.
    As such information exchange between zoos is a little bit limited; there are also some clear boundaries with zoos within certain countries/ethnic groups/organisational groups which further breaks down the free flow of information.

    Thus its quite possible to have zoos running on old habits because there isn't that much published or openly known about out there for them to tap into.

    Then there are species which are so rare that there is little to nothing about their keeping out there; at which point its very possible that those few keepers that interact with them might well have a very limited scope of their understanding.



    This is, of course, without considering that not all zoos are run for the animals; some are very much tourist attractions where the key focus is upon generating revenue and where animal care is important, but only as far as "is needed". They are less likely to want to go out of their way to enrich (or allow keepers paid time to enrich) beyond what is needed to ensure a baseline level of well-being for the animals.
     
  5. Zooplantman

    Zooplantman Well-Known Member

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    I agree that much depends on the type of training and who gets to witness what. Animal care has been greatly improved with training as animals can now receive more frequent routine health inspections without disruption or sedation. Showing this to visitors gives them insight into how a zoo cares for the animals.

    Some zoos give performances by animals that highlight their specific survival skills, physiology, etc. and these, while entertaining, are educational and therefore part of the zoo's mission.

    On the other hand, there have been several tragic zookeeper attacks due to unauthorized or poorly monitored training by those zookeepers. Keepers can get very attached to some animals and lose perspective. Management must be attentive to that, have strict protocols in place, and also monitor keeper attitudes towards the animals in their care. People get too comfy, too delusionally self-confident, and too cocky and then bad things happen.
     
  6. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

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    Inexperience and complacency are two big killers.

    Regular retaining and protocol measures can help to vastly reduce accidents and a proper working zoo should have regular refresher courses for staff regardless of staff experience or condition; you do it every so often regardless to avoid any accidents and then monitor to top up any glaring mistakes or troublesome gaps.

    We will still have accidents. Actually lets pause to think that people are killed by horses every year; its a danger. However many in the horse world accept that as a potential risk; its accepted by society at a general level as part of "owning a horse".

    It should thus be accepted as part of working with a tiger or a hippo or a zebra. We must be careful not to demonise such animals at large simply because its not the norm within society.
     
  7. TheMightyOrca

    TheMightyOrca Well-Known Member

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    Depends on the purpose of the training, and if the training methods are humane. (beating animals isn't cool) Some training is necessary for an animal that's going to stay in captivity. Even sanctuaries that hold the "animals should be freeee" philosophy will train animals for moving and medical procedures. If an animal has to be moved, it's much less stressful for it to train it to walk into its cage than to have a group of people restrain and push it in. For a vet exam, it's a lot easier to train the hippo to open its mouth than to use some device to force it open. Training like this is not only safer for the zookeepers, but it's safer and less stressful for the animals.

    A lot of zoos do educational shows where animals may even display natural behaviors on command. Fine by me. Training can also be used as a form of enrichment for some species.
     
  8. Mr. Zootycoon

    Mr. Zootycoon Well-Known Member

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    Training using positive reinformcement can certainly be beneficial to the animals health.
    Think of elephants, sea lions and dolphins trained for medical treatment.

    Target training in particular can make a zookeeper's life much easier.
    Switching animals between enclosures is much easier and it reduces stress for
    the animal in question when target training is applied.

    Animal training for shows is not bad in my opinion, although I prefer
    a show to be educational. But the "problem" is the housing of the animals
    between shows. If that is done correctly, I have no problem with training animals for shows.

    Last aspect is training as behavioural enrichment. Which I think is fine,
    as long as natural behaviour of the animal in question is taken into consideration.
    I could be beneficial for the animals, especially which more intellegent species,
    like monkeys, parrots and ravens.

    Of course, all of this using humane training methods.