Thursday, February 2
Over the past nine months, I have been working on kennel training our three 2-year-old American alligators in the Program Animals Department: Hercules, Odysseus and Perseus. Yes, it’s been a long process, but it has also been very educational and fulfilling. I have worked in the zoo field training animals for nearly seven years. It wasn’t until I started at Zoo Atlanta that I had the privilege to work with a member of the crocodilian family and see their intelligence in action. Daily, our three alligator stars live at the Wieland Wildlife Home and travel with our trained animal handlers to schools and educate kids all over the Atlanta area. However, when not on the road, I work with each individually toward my ultimate dream of one day having the alligators trained to run across the Amy’s Tree Theater stage from one kennel to another. If you’ve ever seen our World of Wild bird presentation, then you’ve probably seen this kennel-to-kennel behavior from our rats as they run across a railing. What you don’t see are the two kennels placed backstage. The rats start in one kennel and have been trained to run across the bamboo railing to the empty kennel on the other side. This is similar to what I have been working on with our three gators; however, the process is a bit slower due to many factors.
First, alligators are not rats. The rat species we have at Zoo Atlanta are Norway rats, and the species has been domesticated since the 18th century. Alligators are not, by any means, domesticated; when it came time to start training with the alligators it took longer to develop a trust with them. Both rats and alligators have a natural fear of anyone coming near them, which keeps them from becoming prey in the wild. With domestication, this fear is lessened so it is easier to build a relationship with a rat. It takes a lot longer to gain the same trusting relationship with wild animals like alligators. To build that trust I presented food on tongs; after all, the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. I wasn’t about to hand-feed the alligators! The alligators were even afraid of that at first. Eventually they worked up the confidence to come to the tongs to get their treat when presented. The tongs became something they liked instead of something to fear. I presented the tongs at various distances in their habitat: from inches in front of them, to the opposite side of their habitat, and eventually into a kennel.
Another factor that made training the alligators a challenge is the fact that they are cold-blooded because they are reptiles. This means they have a slower metabolism than mammals do, lessening their want, and need, for food on a daily basis. In the wild, alligators may go days without a meal, and adults may go weeks with nothing to eat! Rats are mammals like us, warm-blooded like us, and need to eat multiple times a day like us. Because of the rats’ larger appetites, it gives trainers multiple opportunities a day to work with the rats compared to alligators who, as babies, only need to eat once every other day. To make training gators even more of a challenge, during the winter they lose their interest in food almost entirely. In the wild, food can be scarce at this time of year, so their metabolism slows down even more.
Since I had never worked with alligators before Zoo Atlanta, my knowledge of the species was minimal. This became clear once the gators started entering the kennel and I wasn’t able to get them a treat. During training, when an animal does the behavior it was cued to do it is reinforced. So when the alligator entered the kennel I offered it a treat by dropping a piece of chow through the window on the side. However, the alligator seemed unable to find the food, even when it was literally a half an inch in front of his face! I was at a loss, because that piece of food, or reinforcer, was the only way for me to communicate to the gator that he was doing the correct behavior. With some quick research we discovered why the alligators were not finding the food. Alligators have what are called integumentary sensory organs (ISOs) on their head that work by picking up pressure changes and vibrations in the water and possibly salinity changes too. The mistake I made was not adding water to the bottom of the kennel. Without water, the alligators could hear the food drop, and smell the food, but they didn’t have the help of their ISOs to actually locate it. The moment I added a little bit to the bottom of the kennel, I saw faster results in our training. The gators were finally able to understand that going into the kennel was what I was asking of them because I was finally able to reinforce them as soon as they entered the kennel.
Currently Perseus is the all-star. He is at the starting stages of the kennel-to-kennel process. The kennels start face to face, with no space between them, and we cue him from one kennel to the other and at each training session. If he continues to do well, we will move the kennels farther and farther apart until one day all three gators will be leaving one kennel, running across the stage to the other kennel. These three alligators will only be living at Zoo Atlanta for another year or so, because once they get too big to comfortably travel with the education staff to schools, they will get to go back to another zoo to live out their retirement, and we’ll then receive three more little baby alligators. If I’m not able to fully complete this dream, then at least the next alligators I have the privilege to work with will benefit from the growth of my knowledge of both training and alligators!
Keeper II, Program Animals