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Friday, November 25

This month I have been getting cross-trained at the World of Wild (WOW) Theater presented by Georgia Natural Gas. My primary job is at Wieland Wildlife Home, where I work with all sorts of species from reptiles, to mammals, to invertebrates, but recently it has been all about the birds. One bird I have been getting to know is Baobab the hooded vulture. You may know him from the show or you may know the species to be one of the most endangered birds in the world. Baobab, or “Bob” as we call him, is a very interesting and smart bird. I say this because while working with him I have seen the wide variety of his intelligence, and as wonderful as it is to watch a bird’s mind go to work, sometimes his smarts can create difficulty for a trainer he is unfamiliar with.

These difficulties are partly due to me being new to him and trying to work with him in his house: some animals can view this as a threat; however, another possibility for the troubles between us could be him “testing” me, trying to figure out the sharpness of my training skills (or lack thereof), and seeing what he can get away with. Honestly, we never truly know what the animals are thinking, yet we can try to understand their behaviors based on what and when they do certain things, but a hooded vulture responds very differently to a new trainer versus the reptiles I’m used to working with. Sometimes, though, it isn’t even the difference of species that provides the challenge; sometimes it’s the individual itself. As animal trainers we have to look at many factors; for example, the time when Bob landed on my head and then climbed down my back to get the rest of his food hiding in my pouch. As you can see, he is very smart, as he knew exactly where his food was and that I was new. And most of the time, such as this instance, it is the trainer’s fault for not fully understanding the animal they are working with.

What we want to know before a training session are species, natural history, what motivates the animals, is it a male or female, age, individual history, health…and that’s just the general stuff. I haven’t gotten into looking at the specific situation, like did a loud truck just drive by, has he eaten today, weather, temperature, am I reinforcing him at the right time…as you can see, there are many things we must take into consideration before and during training sessions. And trust me, this list can go on and on. However, here at the WOW Theater we work as a team, so when one trainer is facing challenges we all discuss what it is that trainer is seeing and try to troubleshoot a solution.

The conclusion we came to was to build mine and Bob’s relationship. The need for a strong bond is clear as I watch other trainers walk right in and work with Bob as he sits on his station, calm and relaxed, then as those trainers go to leave he stays on the station and doesn’t try to take a cheap dive into their food pouch. This is very frustrating to watch as my sessions with him don’t look as smooth; however, I have to remind myself that Bob has been working with these trainers for years. They have a strong relationship with him. They know Bob, and Bob knows and feels comfortable with them due to the hours of training sessions they have put into building that trust with one another.

To build trust with him we are doing something called approximations. How it works is like this: As Bob stays on his station calmly (with me in his house), I give him food as a reward. As I take a step back and Bob remains sitting calmly on his station, I again reinforce him. This continues step-by-step, and sometimes it is literally inch-by-inch, until eventually Bob will stay on the station and allow me to exit with only one small piece of food as a reinforcer. With a lot of patience and hard work, Bob and I will be able to work through our rough patch and be the best of friends… or at least stay on his perch while shooting me the stink eye as I exit out the door.
Deidre Ousterhout
Keeper II, Birds and Program Animals

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl