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Training big cats for vaccines

Vaccines. At times it seems like that is one of the most common words we are all hearing these days; however, a lot of people are not accustomed to hearing it regarding animals in zoos. Well, to animal care professionals, this medical procedure is nothing new. In fact, it is something that we begin planning and training for as soon as an animal arrives at the Zoo or is old enough to begin a training program. Just as you would do for your dog or cat at home, many of the animals at Zoo Atlanta require regular vaccines to ensure they live long and healthy lives. Our training programs focus first and foremost on the husbandry or medical behaviors that we would like the animals to voluntarily participate in that would provide them with optimal well-being. Anesthetic procedures always carry a calculated risk, so we focus much of our training on voluntary behaviors such as receiving injections, blood draws, blood pressure readings, ultrasounds, and body part presentations for checks and monitoring. At any point during the training, the animals are free to walk away with no consequences; however, they choose to stay to receive their reinforcement. 

We recently communicated that our big cats (African lions, Sumatran tigers, and clouded leopard) were among the animals being vaccinated for SARS-CoV-2 due to their known potential susceptibility to the virus. To us and them, this was just another normal day, having another normal training session. As we do not enter the same shared space with our cats, they are trained to lie down next to a “mesh” wall (really, it’s more heavy-duty steel), present their hips, or other body part to the wall when asked, and then the team can safely administer the vaccination. The animals are positively reinforced for leaning in toward the needle, remaining calm, and accepting the shot. I have worked with these big cats for many, many years, and yet I am still humbled and impressed in these training sessions, and I am always in awe of what our team has been able to accomplish with them. 

(photo: Shauna Dankberg)

Jenny E.
Lead Keeper, Carnivores

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl