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ZOO-ology column: Zoo animals can learn too

By By Judie Farnsworth
Oct. 14, 2012 at 5:14 a.m.

Chest press for listening to heart and lungs.

Zoos have blossomed in scope and dynamics. The Texas Zoo is no exception.

Michael Magaw, animal curator at The Texas Zoo, promotes and instructs keepers in a fascinating technique called operant conditioning. It's a win-win situation.

Operant conditioning is a form of learning or shaping where specific behaviors are encouraged by the consequences that follow. Animal behavior is linked to finding food, social interaction, safety and reproduction.

Some behaviors are reflexive, but others are learned.

Magaw notes, "Positive reinforcement is the only type (of conditioning) trainers should use with animals, and our animals have reacted in a very positive way."

The animals learn in repetitive, smaller steps with three basic components: a cue (hand signal, object, sound), the behavior exhibited in response to the cue and reinforcement (reward) for a correct response. Reinforcing is a way to communicate with animals to let them know they've done well.

Observant trainers must learn what reinforcer works best for each animal. Even within the same species there are individual preferences. The reinforcement must be something a particular animal enjoys: a back scratch, a toy, food or a favorite activity like being squirted with a water hose.

Target training lets zookeepers move animals around without frightening them. An animal learns to follow a target, possibly the trainer's hand. It touches the target and is reinforced.

Signals called bridges may be used, especially for more complex behaviors when complete reinforcement isn't immediate. They bridge the gap. A bridge (clicker or specific sound) lets the animal know there will be more reinforcement.

Through varied methods of conditioning, our animals are learning to help zookeepers. New and often complex behaviors are possible. Animals may even learn to overcome the fear of something unfamiliar by pairing it with a known reinforcer.

The process is astounding; animals look forward to the attention, are willing learners and have a stronger bond with the zookeepers.

Training is possible in practically every zoo function: feeding, medicating, grooming and moving the animal. Dangerous animals, like our big cats, must shift at night from viewing areas to their bedrooms. Their bedroom areas offer security, air conditioning and, best of all, dinner. They've learned that an open door to their night quarters is a good thing.

No longer is it always necessary to dart and immobilize for medical treatment. It's risky, hard to judge dosages, and animals hate the experience. The stress often affects the results of blood tests.

Now, during weekly veterinarian rounds, zoo vets and keepers may weigh animals regularly, perform annual physicals, vaccinate, draw blood, tend hooves and treat illness with the cooperation of their animal patients.

Animals can be trained to present a flank, ear, hoof or whatever area is to be looked at. Protective contact (through a fence) is still indicated with some animals. Safety for all is uppermost.

Operant conditioning can save precious time and trauma should animals have to be moved in an emergency situation. The animals have learned to be calm in crates that may be a part of their night areas.

They may be trained to respond to a sound played over a loudspeaker. When the sound is played, they go to their associated place and get a reward. This may be done daily, even without an emergency, so keepers know animals will respond when necessary.

The hard work, dedication and training of our staff and others like them impacts every aspect of the animal's environment and well being and adds to educational and positive experiences at the zoo.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo, specializing in educational programs.

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