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Positive reinforcement training with gorillas

Hello everyone, Holly from the Gorilla Care Team here. I wanted to take this time to tell you about a very important part of the gorillas’ care: positive reinforcement training with their caretakers!

Training is voluntary here at Zoo Atlanta, so the gorillas don’t have to participate if they don’t want to. However, training is helpful for us since it helps us to take better care of the animals. There are more than 50 behaviors we can teach the gorillas; most of these are what we call “husbandry behaviors” in that they help us take better care of the animals we work with. For example, if one of the gorillas gets an injury or is exhibiting some sign of discomfort, we can look have them present certain body parts to help us better determine what might be wrong. It’s a lot easier to care for a gorilla if you can ask it to help you, which is why all of the gorillas are trained to show us different parts of their bodies when asked.

We train behaviors like this by using what we call positive reinforcement. Basically, if they do what we ask them to do, they get a yummy treat in return! So, if I was to ask Floyd to show me his foot and he does, I’ll give him something I know he likes, such as a piece of banana or some grapes. How does Floyd know when he’s done what I asked? Well, since he and I can’t use the same language, we use instead what’s called a bridge. In the gorilla area, the bridge is a clicker button. These clickers make a nice clicking sound when pressed, and they “bridge” the gap from the time the gorilla successfully gives us a behavior to the time it takes us to give them a piece of food. When Floyd does what I ask and hears the click of the clicker, he then knows he can stop doing the behavior and that a treat is on its way.

One important behavior is to present their chests, specifically where their heart is. By presenting this part of themselves to us, we can train them to participate in voluntary cardiac ultrasounds! This way, we can monitor their hearts and make sure they’re staying healthy. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in adult gorillas, so this is an important behavior for all our animals to know. Thankfully, all the gorillas in our care are heart healthy! 

Another benefit to training is it’s enriching for the animals. Much like learning a new skill is for us, training for the gorillas challenges them in ways that involve critical thinking and learning. I hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about the effort that goes into the high-quality care we provide for the gorillas!

Holly P.
Gorilla Care Team

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