Panda Updates – Friday, February 12
If you read our #KeeperStories and blogs regularly, you likely know that we do a lot of training around the Zoo. The animals are trained using positive reinforcement, which means we give them something they like, usually a preferred food, when they do the behavior we’ve asked them to do. It’s completely voluntary, so it’s up to the animal if they want to come over to us for a training session when we call them or if they would rather keep taking a nap! I mean, we get it. Who doesn’t love a good nap?
Jackie the red panda arrived at Zoo Atlanta last year already knowing more than 15 behaviors, including “target” (putting his nose to our fist), “up” (standing on hind legs so we can see his underside), and “crate” (walking into a crate for transport). He is a talented guy! However, that doesn’t mean it’s time to rest on his laurels. Learning new behaviors is an enriching mental challenge for both the animals and their care teams!
As part of our continuing professional development, all animal care professionals at Zoo Atlanta take courses on animal training and are assigned a training mentor. I am lucky enough to be the mentor of Panda Care Team member Amanda, who is training a new behavior with Jackie, “sit.” Jackie is a very active red panda, and sometimes we need him to stay still for just a moment so we can do a close inspection of his body. The “sit” behavior asks Jackie to sit calmly with his bottom on the ground. As Amanda’s mentor, my job is to observe her training sessions with Jackie and provide feedback.
It’s still in the early stages, but things are going well so far! Both Amanda and Jackie are doing great! Amanda is using a method called “capturing,” which means that she does a normal training session and if Jackie happens to sit down, she reinforces him with grapes. He seems to be starting to make the connection between sitting and receiving grapes, because he is sitting more often during Amanda’s training sessions. When he sits, Amanda says “sit” and does the hand cue she made up for the behavior so he begins to associate those cues with sitting. Over time, she will be able to predict when he is about to sit and get the cue ahead of the behavior so he is reacting to the cue by sitting rather than the cue being a reaction to his “sit” as it is currently.
These training sessions occur in the red panda habitat, so you may get to witness one sometime! During the session it is a little hard to chat as we are concentrating hard on analyzing behavior in real time, but afterward we are always happy to answer questions. We hope to see you soon!
Keeper III, Mammals