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Zoo's river otter undergoes special training methods

May 1, 2014 at 12:01 a.m.
Updated May 4, 2014 at 12:04 a.m.

A female river otter named Mimz swims in her habitat before a public training session  at The Texas Zoo in Victoria. Mimz, along with many other animals at the zoo, is undergoing husbandry training, which allows for more disciplined behavior and a more relaxed relationship with her trainers.

A white flourish of bubbles formed around Mimz, a female river otter, after she jumped into her pool at The Texas Zoo to press up against a transparent glass wall.

Dangling for Mimz on the other side of the wall was a tennis ball on a stick held by Nathyn Solis, 5, of Victoria.

With a look of equal glee and concentration, Nathyn peered in as training specialist Colton Fischer whistled from inside Mimz's habitat to signal that she had successfully completed her task of finding the target tennis ball.

"That was pretty cool. I got to go and put the tennis target in," said Nathyn, who has been coming to the zoo twice a week with his mother, Erin, for more than a year.

To the casual observer, Mimz's diving and splashing may have seemed like play, but Fischer had actually asked Nathyn to help with husbandry training; a cultivation of an animal's relationship with its handlers for both mental stimulation and medical care benefits.

"We've trained her (Mimz) to actually offer her paw," Fischer said, as an example of husbandry behavior. "If we need to doctor her paw, we can literally ask for it, and she'll place it right in the palm of our hand."

The Texas Zoo's animal curator, Michael Magaw, has seen the change in training styles throughout his animal training career that began in 1979 at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla.

Back then, methods involving the fostering of a relationship with an animal to better train it weren't common, and less time was taken during sessions. It wasn't until Magaw took a job at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that he realized husbandry training had great potential for zoos.

"That's all I've done since," Magaw said. "I go to small nonprofit zoos and help them implement animal training programs like this."

For The Texas Zoo in Victoria, the results have been positive, Magaw says. "Now, if an animal is scared, they come to us, not run from us."

After a recent training session, Fischer chatted with Nathyn next to Mimz's habitat.

"I wish my home was a zoo," Nathyn said. "Then we wouldn't have to drive here every time."

"He will always have a passion for animals now," Magaw said, referring to Nathyn's experience playing a small part in Mimz's training. "That's the goal."

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