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Distance training in the time of COVID

Hi everyone, it’s Sarafee with another edition of Zoo Atlanta’s Keeper Stories! I’m a Senior Keeper on the Gorilla Care Team at Zoo Atlanta, and we are going to talk today about some interesting things we have been doing in our gorilla training program. Now here at Zoo Atlanta, we utilize positive reinforcement training with the animals. We train the gorillas on behaviors that help us take better care of them through this positive reinforcement.  Behaviors such as opening their mouths to allow us to view their teeth, presenting their chests for an ultrasound, or presenting their shoulders for a flu vaccine all help us to provide optimal care. The gorillas really enjoy these training sessions too, even when they are scary with new equipment.  Training sessions are also always voluntary; it is always the gorilla’s choice to participate or not.

Recently I have begun a distance training program with Anaka, one of our 7-year-old girls who can be found in Habitat 3. Now usually when we are training the gorillas in the behind-the-scenes spaces or even at the training panel at The Ford Willie B. Gorilla Conservation Center, they are in close proximity with a mesh panel to separate us. As a reminder, we never share the same space at the same time with any of the gorillas, and they are always taken care of in this fashion; this is known as “protected contact.” So, the gorillas get used to giving us behaviors in this up-close environment.  Our cues, or signals given to tell them what behavior I would like them to present, are usually given up close and they arrange their bodies to position in response to those cues. 

In order for Anaka to understand a cue given at a distance, I started to get creative and I would take just a couple steps away from her and ask her for those same cues, and she would respond and respond correctly!  Anaka locked on this system so quickly she began soliciting me for training sessions by randomly throwing behaviors we had worked on at me, even if I was just walking on by.  Since we worked mostly on opening her mouth in this fashion, she would regularly open her mouth at me even if we were not training at that moment.  While funny to watch, we as keepers need to be aware of this and not reinforce behaviors we do not ask for. As Anaka progressed I was able to ask for these behaviors from farther and farther away inside.  One day, while I was out cleaning in Habitat 4, which is adjacent to Anaka’s habitat, she began soliciting, just like she had done inside.  The next day I grabbed some treats and asked her a few behaviors while she was out on habitat.  Sure enough, she was able to correctly present behaviors to me from across her habitat. 

Being able to distance train is important if an animal is unable to gain close access to the trainer and a certain behavior is needed.  It also is an educational tool that allows us to train animals in front of you, our awesome Zoo guests!

Sarafee
Senior Keeper, Gorillas

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