Hey there, my name is AJ and I’m one of the members of the Hoofstock Care Team. Our team takes care of the giraffes, ostriches, bontebok, warthogs, and rhinos here at Zoo Atlanta, and today I wanted to talk to you all about one of the most important aspects of excellent animal care – positive reinforcement training! At Zoo Atlanta, we use best practices of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement techniques to train the animals for a variety of behaviors that help them participate in their own care.
If you think about training a dog to “sit” by giving treats every time they do, that’s a great example of the positive reinforcement concept. When we start a training session with any animal, the animal has the ability to choose whether or not they want to participate, and if they do, they get a favorite reward. If they don’t, there is no negative associated. It’s really a win-win approach.
Most of the behaviors the animals here at Zoo Atlanta know are behaviors that serve a purpose to help us with their husbandry and health. For example, it was recently and extremely excitedly shared that the Zoo’s female southern white rhinoceros, Kiazi, is pregnant! With a gestation of up to 18 months, it’s important that we continually monitor her health and development of the calf. Our team has successfully trained her to voluntarily participate in ultrasounds so that the Zoo’s Veterinary Team can monitor the progress of her pregnancy, and we are currently training her for voluntary blood draws which will allow the Vet Team to check her body condition and hormone levels from a blood standpoint. Isn’t that neat?!
Not only do these training projects help us to help the animals by improving their care and health, but training is also a fantastic enrichment tool. All animals need physical and mental stimulation throughout the day, and when we participate in training activities with the animals daily, they are problem solving, getting exercise, and adding enrichment to their day. Just like how some people enrich themselves by doing puzzles, training new behaviors allows an animal to solve the puzzle of what we are asking them. Obviously, however, sometimes training a giraffe to step his foot up onto a block for hoof cleaning takes a lot longer than doing a 1,000-piece puzzle!
I hope y’all enjoyed learning a little bit about Zoo Atlanta’s positive reinforcement training program! Our number one goal as animal care professionals is to go into work and give the animals in our care the best day, every day! See you around the savanna!
Keeper II, Mammals