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Training for success

There is a cool, crisp feeling in the air as October has finally rolled around and everyone is getting ready for spooky season. At Zoo Atlanta, October marks the beginning of lemur breeding season. Within our mixed-species lemur habitat is a group of three black-and-white-ruffed lemurs. The group is comprised of Luna and Malaky, both adult female ruffed lemurs, and Ian, the father of Luna and Malaky. In order to prevent inbreeding in the group, we trained Malaky and Luna to voluntarily partake in receiving a monthly birth control injection. Because breeding season runs from October through May, the girls need to receive eight injections during this time. So how are we able to accomplish this in a totally voluntary fashion?

In past years, we trained Luna and Malaky to voluntarily enter a small crate that allows the Vet Team to administer the injection. This takes a lot of training to keep the crate a positive place for the lemurs to return to just 30 days later for the next injection. Often towards the end of breeding season, it may take the girls a bit longer to choose to enter their crate. Because we always want to give animals choice and control during training sessions, we decided to train an alternative method for administering an injection. Over the past 10 months we introduced and began training Malaky and Luna to enter a voluntary “squeeze board.” It is just a large, flat piece of plastic attached to a shelf to create a “chute.” The girls walk through the chute which aligns the lemur’s body along the mesh so that we can easily administer the injection in their thigh. Over the past few months, we have trained them using positive reinforcement to walk through the chute to receive a banana treat. From there we trained the girls to allow us to touch their thighs with our fingers and then slowly worked up to a blunted needle. This creates a positive association with the slight pinch in their thigh and the high value reward (in this case, banana). The girls are fed banana the entire time they are in their chute and while they are being touched to create a positive experience in that space. After months of training, Luna and Malaky now eagerly enter the chute and allow us to touch them with a blunted needle, all while they sit calmly and eat.

October 1 snuck up very quickly, and it was time for the real injection. Our team and the Vet Team worked together, and both Malaky and Luna voluntarily entered their chute and received their first birth control injection for the year.  Because of the amazing training, both girls were done in less than five minutes with minimal stress!

In order to reestablish and maintain the positive relationship with the lemur girls and the voluntary injection, daily training is continued later that same day. It is common to see a slight regression after an injection; however, by training every day and rebuilding the positive relationship, Malaky and Luna will be ready for their next injection in no time. The benefit of having the “squeeze board” and crate gives us an alternative method for giving an injection. There could be a month where one of the girls just does not want to enter the chute. That is totally okay because we still have them trained to enter the crate to receive the injection that way. This gives the lemurs a choice on which method they are more comfortable with. Providing animals with choice and control ultimately leads to optimal well-being.

Kathryn G.
Keeper III, Primates  

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