Positive reinforcement training and trust
I know we’ve mentioned training a few times in these blogs, but it is truly one of the more enjoyable and incredible aspects of being an animal care professional. The type of training we use here at Zoo Atlanta is called positive reinforcement, which basically means we ask the individual for a specific behavior, and if they do it, they get a reward, which for most of the animals in our care is their favorite food! Using positive reinforcement, we can ask an animal to present most parts of their bodies and to voluntarily participate in their health care, knowing that if they do, they will receive a yummy treat in return. Training activities are entirely voluntary for the animals, so if an animal chooses not to participate, that is their choice. As the trainer and the individual being trained work their way through more complex behaviors, they begin to build a trust and respect between the two. The animal knows that if it does what is asked of it, the trainer will respond with the food item it wants. Working with animals, unexpected things happen, and when they do, we must rely on the trust built between the two individuals.
When the pandemic hit, all training was put on hold, especially because big cats have been shown to be susceptible to the virus. Fast forward about a year, and we have a vaccine for the virus specifically designed for animals. Well, with the training on hold we couldn’t “build up” to the vaccine and blood draw that was needed to test the antibodies building in their systems. By “build up,” I mean doing several training sessions leading up to the vaccine to make sure when the time comes, they know what is expected of them. We had to rely on the trust built over the years and training that had occurred in years prior in order to get them vaccines that would protect their health. Even after the vaccines were given, the big cats continue to get into the position needed to receive injections all because of a great relationship, and of course some tasty treats.
Keeper III, Mammals