Training with Shuffles
As most of you know, we do a lot of positive reinforcement training here with the animals at the Zoo. Reptiles are no exception! I have been working with the giant Aldabra tortoises on target training for several years now, but they had also already trained with previous care team members So, a little bit about training …
What is target training? Using a target stick, which serves a visual “cue,” the goal is for the Aldabras to make contact with the target, when presented by a care team member, resulting in something positive, usually favored foods. When they touch the target, then we quickly give a “bridge,” which is a clicker (like many people use in dog training). Then the tortoise will get a treat. This is called a “reinforcer.” Learning what foods they prefer really helps this process. Often tropical fruits or bright veggies and bell peppers are used when training. They love mangoes!
Shuffles, our male and largest Aldabra tortoise, is a rockstar at target training! This kind of training is good for getting in some extra exercise along, with allowing the tortoises to participate in their own care. If it is a warmer day with cooler nights like in the fall or springtime, we often let them outside for the afternoon, and utilize target training to bring them in when it is too cold.
Shuffles advanced at target training very well, so we moved onto the next step: “scale training.” Again, no problem for Shuffles! Getting weights on such a large animal can prove to be challenging, but it’s a necessary part of monitoring their health. In the past we’ve had other keepers help pick him up and set him on a scale. Even with multiple people, it is difficult to pick up a 350-pound tortoise. We have a very large scale with a platform that we use to collect weights. I started “scale training” by laying out the scale with the platform, and then used regular target training to get him to the scale. I led Shuffles around with the target sticks for a few laps, and then eventually led him over by the scale and platform. He wanted to follow the target but was a little hesitant with the scale and platform there. But after he realized there was a big payoff (more favored foods) it wasn’t too scary, and he caught on very quickly. Now, after some repetition he remembers that climbing onto the platform equals yummy treats!
What was the next training step for Shuffles? Well, we have big news here from a big tortoise! Shuffles has now achieved a milestone training goal of helping move himself to the summer habitat outside Scaly Slimy Spectacular! The Aldabras live in different spaces in different seasons. While the weather is warm they stay near Scaly Slimy Spectacular. During the colder months they live in their heated greenhouse near Outback Station. Getting Shuffles to walk the whole journey across the Zoo would probably be asking too much, so instead, we use a trailer to move them from one habitat to the other.
That begs the question: How do we get a giant tortoise onto a trailer?
Well, Shuffles was so confident in his target training that he followed the target all the way onto the trailer! He had been relaxing in his favorite spot, the mud wallow, but once he realized it was time to get up and follow the target, he got up and walked out of the gate at the greenhouse house habitat (at a steady tortoise pace, of course!) where we had the trailer parked and ready for him. The trailer was something totally new for him to see and smell, and the ramp was also a new “challenge” for him to walk up. But using his trademark “shuffle,” he walked up right away for some delicious fruit treats.
We drove him from there up to Scaly Slimy Spectacular. When we got to the summer habitat, Shuffles walked off the trailer and into his summer home all by himself!
Shuffles and the females, Corky and Patches, are all now living in their summer home in front of Scaly Slimy Spectacular. If you are visiting Zoo Atlanta, come on over and say hello to Shuffles and all the other reptiles and amphibians!
Keeper III, Herpetology