If you have a pet, you may have had the (dis)pleasure of doing a nail trim. Just like our nails, dogs, cats and birds have nails that grow. Wolves, bobcats and wild birds keep their nails trimmed naturally through daily use. Animals in our homes and in the Zoo need a different solution.
Since nail trims are so important, we at the World of Wild Theater have trained many of our birds to voluntarily accept dremmeling of their nails. We don’t want to use clippers, as the clippers could pinch their nails. We would also need to hold their toes very still in order to not accidentally hit the quick – the blood vessel running through their nails. The dremmel lets us just take the tip off of the nail and keep it trimmed down. Many of our trained birds stand on a platform. Their nails come through the wire mesh where we can trim them. Having the wire provides a way that we can reach their nails, but they can’t reach the dremmel with either beak or feet. We wouldn’t want them to bite or grab the dremmel, since it rotates at a high speed. This platform keeps them safe. It also provides a gripping surface that helps them keep their feet in place while we work. Our parrots will even allow us to hold a nail or toe steady for a faster, better trim.
To do this, we use – you guessed it! – positive reinforcement. If a bird holds still while the dremmel touches a nail, that bird will get a nice treat. With this training, we don’t have to restrain our birds. Our fully-flighted birds have the option to fly away from the platform if they don’t want to get a trim. Even the parrots who can’t fly have a means to say “no,” by walking away from the dremmel or just moving their toes. Even if we’re holding a toe for a trim, we never hold it hard enough that they can’t pull away. If a bird says “no” using one of these methods, we will pause in what we are doing and then give them another chance. Most of the time they are eager to participate again. Even if they aren’t, we’ll just quit for that time, and try again later that day or another day. They are always ready to go again after a break! Using positive reinforcement, and giving our birds the choice to participate, results in successful nail trims and great relationships between birds and trainers.
Keeper III, Program Animals