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The art of training

As some of you might know, one of our animal experiences here at Zoo Atlanta is the opportunity to watch a talented goat artist make a painting right in front of you! Our goat friend Simon from the petting zoo will hold the paintbrush in his mouth and will swoop away at the canvas, with assistance from a care team member of course. Painting is a fun form of enrichment for Simon, but have you ever wondered what goes into the making of a talented Van-Goat? Simon’s masterpieces are results of the hard work we put into training here and all across the Zoo! Training in itself is an art form, and has many overlaps with the artistic process. So what better way to look at the process of training than from the lens of an artist!

When an artist is getting ready to start a new piece, they often plan things out by making rough sketches or testing materials before taking the work to a larger canvas. The same thing happens when a behavior is going to be trained with the help of shaping plans! Shaping plans act as a step-by-step for how animal care professionals aim to work toward a behavior with an animal. For Simon, his shaping plan for painting included what counts as a full completion of the painting action (i.e. holding the brush for a certain amount of seconds), what verbal cues are accompanied with it, and how it is reinforced. That reinforcement would be with snacks, of course. All animal training, here in the petting zoo and throughout the Zoo, is done by positive reinforcement, meaning that everything is always voluntary for the animals, who can always choose not to participate in an activity.

Once they are all prepared, artists take to the canvas! But there is a lot of thought behind creating something that’s nice to look at, and that’s where the elements and principles of design come in.  Things like texture, contrast, and color are used together to build the overall piece. When scouting for a four-legged artist, care team members tend to seek out certain qualifying traits that act as elements and principles of that behavior. For instance, Simon is more inclined to investigate with his mouth, and that is a great trait to redirect to paintbrush! He also enjoys being the center of attention and therefore makes a great candidate for this type of animal encounter. With every behavior comes some ideal qualities that make an animal fit for that behavior, just like aspects of art that make it nice to look at!

Creating a work of art is a complex process, and so is training! Teaching a goat to be an artist is an art form itself, and the steps to get there have many similarities to the tried and true artistic method.  Both practices take time, knowledge and skill.  But just as artists revise their work, a trained goat will get to brush up on their skills by continuing to practice all their behaviors, especially those that build the foundations for the more involved ones! Overall, skill builds with time and practice, and you never know when artistic inspiration might strike!

Summit S.
Ambassador Animals Keeper

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