Tony the tiger … salamander!
What’s the first thing you think about when someone mentions a salamander? If you thought of a slimy amphibian that can respirate through its skin, you’re correct! If you thought of a hellbender, you’re correct! If you thought of a cute little animal that lives in an aqueous environment, you’re also correct! But did you think, “Hmmm, that sounds like a cool animal to train?” If the answer is “no”, that’s okay! The salamander is not a species we typically think of as being trainable. Lucky for you that’s what I came here to talk about. My fun little training project with Tony, our tiger salamander!
The first question I’ll answer is, who is Tony and where can you see him in the Zoo? Tony lives in Wieland Wildlife Home as an ambassador animal, and the best way to see him is at a presentation at Amy’s Tree Theater or an animal encounter currently taking place at Georgia eXtremes at Scaly Slimy Spectacular. Since he is a salamander and they breathe through their skin, we cannot hold him in our hands like we could with any other ambassador animal during a program. Because of this, Tony would participate in presentations, programs, and encounters in him home enclosure. Then, the Wieland care team decided we wanted to give him a larger space to live in, which became too large to travel in. So just like almost every other animal in Wieland, he would have to be transported to programs in some form of travel apparatus, like a kennel. This brings us to the next question of why we decided to train him.
We decided to train him so he could have a choice of whether he wanted to participate in a program or not. Take our chinchillas, for example. When a chinchilla is assigned to go on a program we tap on the front of their home. Then, whichever chinchilla responds to that tap, we open their kennel door. If they hop in the kennel, they have decided to go on the program with us! If they do not hop in the kennel, we’ll give them another opportunity to kennel, and if a chinchilla still does not kennel, then we pick a different animal for the program. By not kenneling, the chinchilla has made a decision to not go on a program with us. This is exactly what we wanted to do with Tony. We wanted to train him to have the choice of getting into the travel enclosure or not.
Now I can get into the question of how I trained him to enter the travel enclosure! Tony does not have the same intelligence level as a chinchilla, nor the best eyesight, but this works in my favor for training. So for him I found out that training him to touch a target pole would be a great starting point because once I trained him to target, he could do that anywhere! Including walking into his travel enclosure.
We use positive reinforcement for all animal programs at Zoo Atlanta, meaning that participation is always voluntary for the animals. This means that when I ask Tony to enter his travel enclosure, or touch the target pole, he gets a piece of special food (or reinforcement) in return. Since he’s a carnivore, his food consists of crickets or earthworms! Yum! Having poor eyesight means that Tony reacts to movement near his face in the form of opening his mouth and trying to grab at the movement. When we feed him, he can see the movements of his food, so target training him was easy! Instead of moving the food near his face, I moved a target pole. I used a ping pong ball on the end of a stick because I was able to wiggle the ping pong ball just enough that Tony could see the movement. When I first started training the behavior, I would place the target pole very close to him to increase his success of touching the target pole. And like I said, he opens his mouth at whatever moves near him, that’s exactly what he did to the target pole, but instead of grabbing the ping pong ball, he would bite right in front of it. Every single time he did this behavior I would give him a cricket or an earthworm. Tony learned this quickly so after just a few days of training, I was able to move the target pole further and further away, till I got to the point of him walking across his entire home to touch the target pole.
The next step was adding in his travel enclosure. I started off with just targeting him to the front of the travel enclosure so he could get an idea of where he would walk in and out of it. The next training session he successfully put his head through the doorway! Since I didn’t want to pick him up, I allowed him to back out of the travel enclosure on his own, which he figured out quickly too. By the very next session, he was walking his entire body and tail length into the travel enclosure to touch the target pole!! Since I used up all his food for going into the travel enclosure, I just left it in his home so he could figure out how to walk out on his own. He figured out how to exit the travel enclosure within 10 minutes of me leaving him there. More success! My next step was seeing if I could train him to go into and out of the travel enclosure in the same session. The first time I attempted this session he entered and exited his travel enclosure perfectly! He targeted into the travel enclosure, touched the target pole to turn himself around, and targeted out of the travel enclosure. I say he did this “quickly,” but it probably took him almost a full minute to complete the whole session, since Tony is not always the quickest about swallowing his food. From the starting point to the initial targeting session to this final session, it took him about four months to learn the behavior. For Tony this was a reasonable amount of time to learn the behavior since I was only training him one day a week!
Tony is now fully trained to enter his travel enclosure. When we see he is scheduled to go on a program, Wieland care staff can “ask” him to kennel by placing the target pole at the back of the travel enclosure. If Tony goes all the way into the travel enclosure, that’s his way of letting us know he is participating in the program. If Tony does not fully enter the travel enclosure, or doesn’t move towards the target pole at all, that’s him letting us know he doesn’t want to participate in the program, and we get to take a different animal to the program. Tony has decided to participate in all his programs since being trained! When the day comes and he decides he doesn’t want to go in his travel enclosure, I’m confident he’ll make the decision not to. Training Tony has been grrrrrrrrrrrreat!
Keeper II, Ambassador Animals
(photo by Emily B.)