Panda Updates – Wednesday, April 21
Now that I have been on the Panda Care Team for a few months and am feeling more comfortable with the routine, I am able to start learning other things. One of those things has been training with the bears. Each of the Zoo’s adults, Yang Yang and Lun Lun, know about 30 different behaviors, so I have begun the process of developing my training relationship with them and learning what each of those behaviors entails. All the training done here at Zoo Atlanta uses positive reinforcement. What this essentially means is that when we ask for a behavior, if the animal completes that behavior correctly, they will get something in return as reinforcement. We typically use food in our case as pandas are particularly food motivated, but if working with other animals, reinforcement can be anything from treats to their favorite toy or even scratches for a species where that’s appropriate (think petting your dog for good behavior). In addition, these training sessions are completely voluntary. If the animals do not feel like participating or completing a certain behavior, that is absolutely okay. If we ask for a behavior and they do not do it, we can try to ask again, we can ask for a different behavior, or we can simply move on or end the session if need be.
Since the adult giant pandas have been doing these behaviors for many years now, they are very familiar with their training and what each of their behaviors should look like. Because they are also incredibly smart, they have been known to try to “cheat” with new team members. They know we do not have as much experience training with them, and they will try to see where they can cut corners with some of their behaviors to see if we will let them get away with more. I have started my training by working with Yang Yang, because he tends to be a little slower-paced during his training sessions than Lun Lun, and he can be a bit more forgiving if I slip up. However, he is still keeping me on my toes during a few of these sessions. For example, one of the behaviors we can ask for is for him to present his eye to the mesh so that we can inspect the eyes or even administer eye drops if need be. On a few occasions that I have asked for this behavior, he has only presented his cheek to the mesh, rather than his entire eye. I think he is hoping that I will still reinforce him for not quite doing the whole behavior, but this is one of the things that I have to look for when I am training with him, as it is not technically the correct behavior. The more I am training with him, the more comfortable we have gotten with each other, as I am getting the hang of his training a little more and he’s catching on that I won’t be too much of a pushover. These sessions are always very fun for me and I enjoy “seeing the wheels turn” as the bears work through a session. I think it’s also safe to say that Yang Yang enjoys them too as he gets to spend some time with us and get some of his favorite treats at the same time.
In honor of my recent training progress with Yang Yang, enjoy this throwback picture of the actual first time I ever trained with him way back when I was an intern!
Keeper I, Mammals