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Training with Cannoli

Hi, my name is Roxanne and I am an Ambassador Animal Keeper here at Zoo Atlanta. Ever heard the expression “lizard brain”? Well, you might want to rethink that one. One of our newest ambassador animals is Cannoli, a savanna monitor. Monitors are a genus of lizard (Varanus), which includes the Komodo dragon, that all share some pretty interesting traits. Monitors have some of the highest metabolic rates in reptiles, which allows them to be active hunters and maintain large areas of territory. They also have forked tongues like snakes, so that they can more accurately detect the direction of their prey. Savanna monitors like Cannoli are carnivorous, eating mostly insects and mollusks. Their strong jaws are specially leveraged for crushing shells like those of snails. They can even eat scorpions! But one of my favorite monitor traits is that they are intelligent lizards and can learn a variety of behaviors! This makes them excellent ambassador animals as it allows us to work closely and safely with them, as well as feature them in our animal presentations and programs.   

Cannoli is still young and relatively new to Zoo Atlanta, but he is a quick study. I started his positive reinforcement training by teaching him a basic targeting behavior. I introduced a target, in Cannoli’s case a Kong on a stick, and when he acknowledged it, he was reinforced with a piece of mouse, one of his favorite snacks. From there he learned to associate the target with his mouse pieces, and I was able to build up the behavior to him walking to the target and flicking it with his tongue. Gradually building on basic behaviors to train the behavior you want to see is called “approximating” and is a great method for training animals using positive reinforcement. Once he had targeting down, we moved on to voluntarily kenneling. We used the target to walk him into an open kennel, where he then received his reinforcement of mouse pieces. Soon he realized going into the kennel would get him his snacks, and he didn’t need the target anymore. As Cannoli masters kenneling, he will be taught even more behaviors that will help us care for him and help more people learn about this interesting – and intelligent – species.

(photo: Roxanne B.)

Roxanne B.
Keeper I, Ambassador Animals

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