Training the human animal
At the Zoo, we talk a lot about how we use positive reinforcement training to enable the animals to participate in their own care. But did you realize, we train the keepers, too?
When someone starts at Zoo Atlanta, they don’t just jump into training animals. We have a process for training animal care professionals so that everyone has a strong understanding of the basics of training, as well as some of the physical skills to train safely and effectively. As part of this process, every new animal care team member has a mentor who helps them through the four stages of the process. As someone with a lot of experience training birds, I was asked to mentor one of our amazing bird keepers, Amanda.
Amanda is nearly at the end of her training process. She’s learned basic terms and concepts, practiced writing a training plan, and has completed the training process from beginning to end with our kori bustard, Tuza. Tuza was trained to step onto a station and wait there for up to three seconds. Amanda learned not only the obvious things, like when and where to reinforce Tuza, but some things she didn’t expect. Do you know how hard it is to grab and toss a superworm several feet away with accuracy? Having completed this training, I think Amanda could compete in Olympic Superworm Tossing, if there were such a thing!
To finish the learning process, Amanda has to train one more behavior. She is teaching a guineafowl to peck at a target. This was another opportunity to learn new skills and concepts. Amanda continued to adapt her training as needed, and not necessarily stick to the details of the plan. Originally, Amanda planned to have the guinea fowl peck at a ball. We quickly found that he preferred to peck at the screw thread on the metal handle. On second look, it looked a bit like the segments of a mealworm, one of his favorite foods. Rather than insisting he pecks just the ball, we adapted to his natural inclination and allowed him to peck at the screw thread as well as the ball. That doesn’t cause any problems. We don’t, however, allow him to go higher, as sometimes he wants to peck at the hand instead. That’s something we don’t want to encourage.
Through this process, it’s not just Amanda, Tuza, and the guineafowl learning. I’m learning, too! Teaching a person forces me to take some of my animal training techniques – like setting up the environment for success, taking small steps, and reinforcement – and adapt them to the human animal. It’s my job to give Amanda the tools she needs to succeed, the knowledge and freedom to empower her to make good training choices, and a learning environment that is fun and reinforcing. I hope I’m succeeding in that job, and that, in spite of our odd work schedules these days, she’ll be a full-blown Zoo Atlanta trainer soon!
Senior Keeper, Ambassador Animals